A mayor for all seasons

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Winnipeggers are in for a good show during the next three months as mayor and council candidates manoeuvre for advantage in the Oct. 22 civic election. But beyond the candidates' explanations of their own conduct, the public will be looking for a program of city hall reform that will better protect the public interest for many years to come.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/07/2014 (3117 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeggers are in for a good show during the next three months as mayor and council candidates manoeuvre for advantage in the Oct. 22 civic election. But beyond the candidates’ explanations of their own conduct, the public will be looking for a program of city hall reform that will better protect the public interest for many years to come.

The well-documented blunders of the current mayor and council have shown the need for reform of the internal mechanisms of city government. But Winnipeg’s history of reforming city hall to correct the problems of the moment suggests the need for something more stable and enduring.

Candidates arguing for a business-friendly city hall will have to show the business-friendly administration of Mayor Sam Katz was on the right track. But the business-friendly method led to massive cost overruns on a new police station, inexplicable decisions about construction of a new fire hall and generous compensation for chief executive Phil Sheegl, who presided over the mismanagement until his sudden exit. It won’t be easy to show this was a good method of government.

Dale Cummings / Winnipeg Free Press Files

Candidates of the left, who in the past have argued for higher taxes to increase city revenue, will have to show why the public should pour more revenue into the leaky bucket that is city hall. The argument from the left generally holds money extracted from private hands and spent by the public authorities will be applied for the general good of the community. That case is hard to make in the light of audits by the EY consulting firm on real estate transactions and by KPMG on the police-headquarters project.

When Winnipeg was amalgamated with its suburbs in 1972, the provincial government of the day was fearful of the personal power of mayor Steve Juba and tried to rig the new civic government to rein him in. A large role was therefore given to the board of commissioners, the most senior permanent city officials operating as a united decision-making body. A system tailor-made to neutralize Juba continued long after he had left the civic stage.

The board of commissioners worked well but its great power irked later mayors who felt they had earned, through election, the right to run the city. It was abolished in the time of mayor Susan Thompson. The city council and its committees, led by the mayor, remained as the locus of power at city hall.

In the time of Mayor Sam Katz, however, the system designed to suit Susan Thompson proved to be ineffective. The protections for the public interest that previously seemed unnecessary were no longer there when they were needed.

Now, Winnipeg has once again been put through the wringer and once again there is a need for new structures and new rules at city hall. We should not, however, design a system of city government around the weaknesses of the Sam Katz years. Mr. Katz is on the way out. It is entirely possible members of his ruling group on council will also pay an electoral price for the maladministration they supervised.

Under the system we have, a mayor’s power derives most of all from the ability to win co-operation within city hall and to influence opinion in the city at large. A charismatic mayor can dominate the agenda and abuse power, while a weak mayor can allow chaos to prevail.

Winnipeg’s next mayor may turn out to be someone very like Sam Katz or someone totally different. We need a system of city governance that will work reasonably well in either case. We might elect another Steve Juba or another Bill Norrie or another Susan Thompson or another Glen Murray. These were vastly different people with different strengths and weaknesses.

Winnipeg should take enough time and enough care to design a system of governance that will work for a long time under many different mayors and councils. Candidates should not offer the public reforms designed to solve Mayor Katz’s difficulties.

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