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McNeil brought change to a city hall in turmoil

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/2/2019 (620 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There is no way to leave quietly when you're the top dog.

Leaders who sit atop organizations — governments, businesses, professional sports teams — struggle under the stifling expectations of the people they serve. When those leaders suddenly step down, speculation about whether they jumped or were pushed is almost sure to follow.

Such is the case for Doug McNeil, soon to be the former chief administrative officer of the City of Winnipeg. The 58-year-old career public servant announced Thursday he is stepping down at the end of April, a year before his five-year contract was due to expire.

At first blush, the lack of advance warning — Mayor Brian Bowman claimed he only found out about the retirement a couple of hours before a Thursday morning news conference — strongly suggests hidden drama.

CAO Doug McNeil was asked if he accepts the notion that when he arrived at city hall, he was greeted with a civic bureaucracy that was in nearly complete disarray and turmoil. "Yes," he said without hesitation. (Boris Minkevich / Free Press files)</p></p>

CAO Doug McNeil was asked if he accepts the notion that when he arrived at city hall, he was greeted with a civic bureaucracy that was in nearly complete disarray and turmoil. "Yes," he said without hesitation. (Boris Minkevich / Free Press files)

Could McNeil have been asked to leave because of some conflict with Bowman? Did he decide to jump now before some seismic controversy erupted at city hall? Was he just worn out from the constant friction between the city and province?

For many reasons, it will be impossible to tell. At his news conference on Thursday, McNeil was the picture of a suburban retiree, talking about spending more time with his family and attending to a long list of home improvement projects. It was the classic posture for a career public administrator who was leaving a high-profile job and taking his secrets with him.

Say what you will about him, McNeil has always been unflappable. Even when the temperature rises, and tempers are flaring, he tends to be the calmest guy in the room.

How then do we judge the McNeil era at city hall?

All epitaphs for McNeil's tenure have to begin with what greeted him when he took the job four years ago.

McNeil came in immediately following the swift departure of acting CAO Deepak Joshi, who was suspended in January 2015 after Mayor Brian Bowman said he and council had lost confidence in his ability to fill the CAO role. Joshi resigned a month later without revealing the reasons for his suspension and subsequent resignation. To this day, nobody is quite sure why Joshi lost the confidence of Bowman and council, and what he did to deserve suspension.

McNeil started his tenure as CAO after the departure of Deepak Joshi. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

McNeil started his tenure as CAO after the departure of Deepak Joshi. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Joshi had served as the top civil servant at city hall for nearly two years following the equally sudden departure of CAO Phil Sheegl, right-hand man to former mayor Sam Katz. Sheegl left amid rapidly escalating concerns about a number of real estate transactions, including the purchase and retrofit of the former Canada Post building downtown to serve as the headquarters for the Winnipeg Police Service. His departure came a day before the release of a scathing audit on a deal to build a new fire station, which involved a controversial land swap with a private developer.

In an interview, McNeil was asked if he accepts the notion that when he arrived at city hall, he was greeted with a civic bureaucracy that was in nearly complete disarray and turmoil. "Yes," he said without hesitation.

McNeil described city administration as being quite disrupted in the aftermath of the Katz-Sheegl-Joshi era, with many questions being raised about process and decision-making. He said he put his mind to re-inventing the senior levels of the administration and the manner in which they support council in decision-making.

To that end, McNeil said he helped bring in a new conflict-of-interest policy and code of conduct for municipal employees. He was able to completely revamp the director-level of the city's bureaucracy. This meant lots of departures of the old guard, some on their own terms, others at the request of the CAO. However, McNeil said it was essential to bring in a new generation of managers that was focused on doing things a different way.

City hall is running quite differently than it was under the Katz–Sheegl administration. But that does not mean it has been smooth sailing.

In many ways, city hall is running quite differently than it was under the Katz-Sheegl administration. But that does not mean it has been smooth sailing.

McNeil has been at the centre of several percolating controversies, including botched efforts to consult with Charleswood residents on the widening of Wilkes Avenue, and an ongoing war of attrition with developer Andrew Marquess over the development of the Parker Lands and the Fort Rouge yards.

You could also fairly question McNeil's role in the colossal defeat Bowman and others suffered in the Portage and Main referendum in last fall's civic elections. The city failed to release full information on the scale of work needed to be done beneath the famed intersection in the underground concourse.

Details of the scope and cost of that work, which may require the intersection to be completely dug up, could have changed that debate in the referendum. Lamentably, Bowman and the administration failed to get those details in front of voters before it was time to vote.

In the end, serving as a senior civil servant is a thankless job. The pace of work is relentless, with every completed project greeted by a long list of new challenges.

McNeil said he had hoped to stay to see the current second phase of bus rapid transit and the Waverley underpass completed. But waiting until those projects are finished would not have made leaving any easier.

"There would always be something else tomorrow."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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