Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Selinger stokes the fires

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Premier Greg Selinger is correct in deciding not to impose tougher rules of conduct for city councillors as a result of a series of property deals that are now the subject of an audit and considerable public discourse.

At this point, there is evidence of extraordinary sloppiness and possibly other errors in the way the City of Winnipeg erected a firehall on land it does not own. There are also questions about why a single company, Shindico, has received so much civic business, even though the answer may only be related to the firm's skill, knowledge and resources compared to others.

There are no facts, however, to back up suggestions the city's controversial land deals were dishonest, or that anyone benefitted personally from these transactions.

That's why Mr. Selinger is properly keeping his distance. But he needlessly stoked the controversy with inflammatory comments to Free Press columnist Dan Lett.

"The one thing we know now," the premier said, "is that this doesn't pass the public smell test of ethics. Nobody thinks that this stuff is OK."

It sounds like Mr. Selinger has already reached a conclusion, even though he goes on to say the appropriate thing at this point is to wait for the outcome of the twin audits that are to be conducted. One will look into the firehall deals, while the other will be a broad review of property transactions over the last five years.

The premier seems to be accusing someone of malfeasance in one breath, then calling for due process in the next.

The fact is municipal councillors and employees across Canada are often suspected of using their positions to fill their pockets. That's because the business of cities frequently involves the trading, selling or buying of land, leasing deals, construction tenders, management contracts and a range of other services than can be influenced or abused by people with inside knowledge.

In Winnipeg, councillors and mayors have faced scrutiny over the years, but criminal charges, or even confirmed cases of abuse of office, have been extremely rare, which is not to say it does not happen.

Whenever suspicions are raised, however, calls for tougher rules inevitably follow. The city has had a code of conduct since at least 1994, but there were calls for stricter controls over the conduct of councillors and city employees as far back as the 1970s, if not before.

The problem with the current code is that it has no penalties, although the provincial Municipal Conflict of Interest Act does have some teeth, including provisions that would force a councillor to resign and pay restitution. There are also criminal laws that would apply to anyone engaging in fraud, embezzlement, bribery, theft and a range of other offences.

The controversy has led to renewed demands for a conflict-of-interest commissioner to watch over city council, a discussion that is best left until after the results of the twin audits are presented.

If councillors need help remembering their oath of office or the rules of conflict of interest, they need only ask the city clerk. And if they break the rules, well, there are laws in place to deal with that, too.

Mr. Selinger has not helped the process -- or relations with the city -- with his rash prejudgment of the issues.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2012 A10

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