The city's decision to spend almost $190,000 on a Montreal governance consultant through a series of sole-sourced contracts has led city council into a debate over the independence of the city auditor.

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The city's decision to spend almost $190,000 on a Montreal governance consultant through a series of sole-sourced contracts has led city council into a debate over the independence of the city auditor.

Earlier this month, a Free Press access-to-information request revealed the city spent $189,510 between June 2008 and September 2009 on consulting fees and expenses incurred by Concordia University professor Don de Guerre, who was hired to help reorganize the city's workforce.

Normally, consulting contracts over $100,000 are tendered by the city. But they don't have to be if only one contractor can do the job.

Winnipeg chief administrative officer Glen Laubenstein, who previously hired de Guerre when Laubenstein ran three other Canadian municipalities, said knew of no other expert in participative design, a governance strategy that involves consensual decision-making.

The spending led Daniel McIntyre Coun. Harvey Smith to ask the city auditor to investigate the consulting contracts stemming from the reorganization, which was approved by council in 2008.

But since the same reorganization has the city auditor reporting to the CAO instead of council, Smith and several other city councillors now want the auditor to report to politicians again.

"To have the auditor report to the CAO and not to council is a conflict of interest," Smith said Wednesday, after he and Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi filed a notice of motion to place the auditor back under the control of city council.

On Nov. 25, council will debate a proposal to reverse that aspect of the reorganization, which was only opposed last year by a single councillor - St. Vital Coun. Gord Steeves - but is now regarded as somewhat flawed by half of city council.

Councillors have a laundry list of complaints about the reorganization, ranging from the decision to dissolve a policy office to the elimination of 83 full-time positions from the city's workforce and he creation of three new deputy CAO positions.

Behind closed doors, councillors in Mayor Sam Katz's inner circle have urged him to wrest oversight of the city auditor and city clerk away from the CAO and back to city council. But the mayor has declined.

"I don't think it would make a difference," Katz said Wednesday. "(The auditors) are the ones who decide what they want to audit. They do their audits and they make their recommendations and there is no political interference. The auditor is fairly autonomous."

In most Canadian governments, auditors report to politicians. For example, the provincial auditor reports to the Manitoba legislature and Auditor General of Canada reports to the House of Commons.

Winnipeg's reporting relationship doesn't make sense because it could require the auditor's office to answer to the same officials auditing staff are investigating, said Gerbasi, who called the consultant spending "an obvious example" of something that should be investigated.

Support for restoring the reporting relationship of Winnipeg's auditor extends beyond the ranks of council's unofficial opposition.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca