Modernizing the City of Winnipeg Act

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

In late June the provincial government tabled notice that it would begin overhauling the cumbersome and anachronistic City of Winnipeg Act. The effectiveness of that needed rewrite will depend on its guiding principles.

Premier Gary Doer left some tantalizing clues to its content in a recent speech when he talked of the need for a more agile and autonomous city, one with more room to change and innovate. “Cutting grass on boulevards should not be a provincial legislative matter,” he quipped, and suggested that much of the prescriptive and frankly patronizing detail of the Act would go. Ultimately, he wants to take 200 to 300 pages out of the dowdy 600-page tome, and he’s on the right track. Winnipeg is the “motor” of the Manitoba economy and getting its legislative framework right is a pressing matter.

Nobody disputes that a legislative tune-up is long overdue. Three decades ago, our city was the third largest in Canada. In the recent census, Winnipeg just managed to hold onto eighth position. Next census, in the absence of policy renewal at both the provincial and city level, it will slip down to number nine, behind Hamilton-Wentworth.

While not impossible, reversing this stunning relative decline will not be easy. The low-performance framework embodied in the Act is only one small part of the stagnation puzzle. The city’s slide substantially reflects policy choices made at higher government levels. They form a lethal smorgasbörd made up of transfer payments, uncompetitive taxes, excessive government ownership of the economy, federal over-regulation of agriculture, regional politics that shifted industries to other cities (Air Canada’s headquarters, the CF-18 maintenance contract), the patent stupidity of rent control and the failed Unicity amalgamation.

With the right changes, a modernized City of Winnipeg Act would help set the stage for stronger growth by creating a city with much lower taxes and better services. While the Doer government reforms focus primarily on clearing overly prescriptive rules and assorted regulatory underbrush, this initial revamp can be a precursor to more substantial structural reform.

That next stage would create a legislative foundation for a “high performance city” by embracing proven frameworks for efficiency used by award-winning American cities like Phoenix and Indianapolis; or Christchurch, New Zealand. These cities have got their “structures” right, eliminating the petty politics and parochialism that are by-products of badly designed governing frameworks.

In the jargon of the trade, the legislative foundations of high performance cities are based on the principles of transparency, neutrality and separation. In Winnipeg it would mean:

  1. An output-based financial measurement system – Mandate cutting-edge accounting systems that produce useful information. Activity-based costing ties spending to individual units of service instead of broad, less useful spending categories, like salaries. The imposition of a capital charge on all departments would signal that assets are not “free” and create an incentive within government to use scarce resources efficiently. This information would also create a level playing field in the competitive model described below.
  2. A mandatory system of public-private competition or managed competition – In Indianapolis and Phoenix, civic workers have thrived by competing with private vendors. A new Act would separate the buyer of a service from its producer, with the city auditor’s office handling all bids. Technically, it’s called a purchaser-provider split.
  3. Money bylaws, or public votes on major capital expenditures. Once an integral feature of city government in Winnipeg, and an important feature of Phoenix city government, this provision would have saved plenty of headaches over divisive and controversial projects like the downtown arena.

  4. Finally, and most critically, clearly separating the elected officials from day-to-day operations – Hiring decisions, for example in a police department reorganization, would be the city manager’s responsibility not the mayor’s while councillors would exit the tedium of being involved with administrivia like Mickey Mouse zoning and building permit issues. In other words, City Council, as in Phoenix and New Zealand, would function as a board of directors that provides broad policy direction to staff, focusing on the forest, not the trees. Section 4 of the Phoenix City Charter is directly worth copying into the new Act: “Except for the purpose of inquiry, the council and its members shall deal with the administrative service solely through the City Manager and neither the council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinates of City Manager, either privately or publicly. Any member of this council violating the provisions of this section shall be removed from office as in this Charter elsewhere provided.

Premier Doer’s first cut at reform should be lauded. But he should avoid making two classic mistakes: Don’t begin thinking about new taxing powers for the city before the critical reforms listed above occur. And don’t give municipal politicians more power by expanding their role into murky operational areas, a straightforward recipe for disaster.

A 400-page Act is better than a 600-page Act. Better yet, write a 50-page Act that contains these simple, yet proven principles of good government.

That could be next session’s project.