Reinventing Winnipeg

Worth A Look, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

Last November, the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce established a task force on re-inventing civic government. Last month, the final report was released detailing the manner in which changes can be made at city council, as well as how to provide greater efficiency and accountability to the citizens of Winnipeg.

Term limits is something that I would fully support. However, the notion of term limits for city council is probably nearly impossible to achieve, due to the fact that city council would have to approve of it in the first place (by a vote of 14-2, city council turned down Councillor Peter de Smedt’s motion to institute term limits for itself).

It might be more useful to get the federal government to change the Constitution and recognize cities as independent of provinces, instead of cities being a creation of provinces—something that federal NDP Leader Jack Layton has called for. If that happened, then significant, political changes could occur at City Hall.

The Chamber of Commerce is also suggesting that the public be consulted on whether representation can be better achieved through the possibility of a “slate system” being used in municipal elections or the current model of a “ward system” of representation. Let’s be absolutely clear—in all major municipalities except Winnipeg, there are municipal political parties or coalitions that compete at election time. Here in Winnipeg, individuals run on their own platform—without accountability—and get elected based on their personality, and the mayor has the absolute authority to create a cabinet (EPC) that is not accountable to the citizens of Winnipeg. In other cities, coalitions of leftists or rightist candidates function like any other political party and generally run city-wide, rather than the ward system that we have here in Winnipeg.

It might be interesting to note that the original intent when Unicity was created in 1971 was for municipal political parties to compete for the then 50-seat city council and the mayor would be elected by the majority of city council, not by the citizens. Then mayor Stephen Juba objected strenuously and premier Ed Schreyer backed down on the idea and the whole notion of party (slate) disappeared forever from municipal politics.

I think it would be very difficult to get much support from councillors to run city-wide due to the fact that constituents in the wards would feel that they were being neglected because a councillor would have to think like the mayor—city-wide—instead of being concerned just with the issues in his or her constituency. It might be more useful to think of amending the City of Winnipeg Act to have the mayor elected by the majority of city councillors, instead of city-wide. That might encourage party (slate) politics at City Hall.

I am very supportive of the chamber’s recommendation of “ballot” questions during elections (also called referendums, in my opinion) as part of what I call direct democracy. The fact is that this is permissible under the legislation of the City of Winnipeg Act today. Unfortunately, the only time councillors looked at this idea was in 1983 on two questions—the French language question as well as whether Winnipeg ought to be a nuclear-free city. It is interesting to note here that more people came out to vote when there were questions on the ballot.

The chamber also recommends that the city must determine its core mandate versus non-core services, the impact of the private sector, and the ability to control escalating costs as well as the protection of valuable resources. Furthermore they recommend that the Special Operating Agency (SOA) be made a full standing committee to ensure accountability and transparency. I agree with this because it would enable councillors to look at the various service delivery models, including but not limited to:

  • Franchising—giving private or non-profit organizations the opportunity to deliver a service in a specific neighbourhood.
  • Volunteerism—they usually provide services that complement, rather than replace, services provided by civic government.
  • Self-help—those who benefit from the service and those who provide it are one and the same. They complement services, supplement reduced services, or develop new services.
  • Subsidy/fees—here civic governments influence the demand for services with incentives to producers of a service and assist customers to pay for it, or charge a fee for that service.
  • User fees—can be viewed as an alternative revenue source.
  • Vouchers—allow citizens to choose from a variety of different service providers.

Finally, the chamber recommends that the provincial government provide the city with some legislative flexibility to reduce reliance on property taxes and implement growth-related tax sources. Does that mean the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce endorses the original “New Deal” as proposed by former mayor Glen Murray, which would have reduced reliance on property taxes by 50 per cent over time, by substituting federal gas taxes as well as “sin” taxes? Or do they support a sales tax for cities?

The Chamber’s vision for Winnipeg is simple—to be the fastest growing city in Canada. Yes, we need to challenge the status quo. But I don’t think we need to focus on growth; rather we need to change our way of thinking of our city—we have such an inferiority complex!—and recognize, instead that we are proud to be Winnipeggers.

Nick Ternette is a community and political activist, freelance writer and broadcaster. This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, May 15, 2006.