Why Canadian Cities Should Look to Phoenix

Commentary, Municipal Government, Steve Lafleur

A recent controversial land-swap deal undertaken by the City of Winnipeg to build a new fire station has called attention to the sometimes too-cozy relationships between local politicians and developers in Canadian cities. Similarly, Toronto city councilors — as well as the mayor — have come under fire for their use of Section 37 of Ontario's provincial planning act to extract arbitrary fees from developers. Whether or not there is any wrongdoing in either case, these examples highlight the fact that municipal politicians are in positions in which they may abuse the public trust. These controversies should be a launching point for a broad discussion of how to improve municipal governance. Canadian cities need a new model, and for accountability, transparency, and efficiency, there is no better governance model than that in Phoenix, Arizona.


Canadian municipal councils tend to have a large degree of involvement in day to day administration. Politicians often negotiate directly with developers and other interested parties, and that comes with significant moral hazard. There are many ways in which municipal politicians can break the public trust with impunity.


These range from contracting with favoured vendors to making zoning or transportation decisions that would have an impact on the value of their own property. While politicians are typically required to recuse themselves from votes where there is a conflict or the appearance of a conflict of interest, it isn't all that difficult to trade votes on a municipal council.


Additionally, it is very easy for municipal politicians to give favourable treatment to developers as a quid pro quo for campaign donations. People would cry foul if the Minister of National Defense was accepting campaign contributions from defense contractors while handing out contracts to them (competitively tendered or otherwise), yet the analogous situation at the municipal level is common practice. There simply isn't anything that can be done to prevent such things under the current model. While it is unclear whether Canadian city councillors are engaging in wrongdoing, every major land deal or construction project will continue to arouse suspicion until key reforms are made to increase accountability and transparency. It would result in better service delivery, and more confidence in the municipal government.


In order to keep politicians out of day-to-day administration, Chapter III, Section IV of the City of Phoenix City Charter specifically prohibits city councilors from directing or requesting the appointment of any municipal employee, save for the city manager.


Any member of council violating this provision is removed from office. City council operates as does a board of directors, setting the strategic direction for the city and providing oversight. The city manager acts as the city's CEO. So, for instance, city council may pass a motion calling for increased rapid transit. The city manager will then commission studies, and issue a request for proposals with council's approval. City council has no role in contract negotiations. The only recourse city council has is to fire the city manager, should they be unhappy with her work.


This arrangement ensures that city councillors cannot easily manipulate the city manager. While one might worry that the manager would govern secretively, and does the very same things councillors are often accused of, it is worth noting that the City of Phoenix has won many awards for transparency and effective city governance, including Germany's Carl Bertelsmann Award for the world's best run city in 1993.


It has also been named the most efficient American city government by the National League of Cities, the National Civic League, and the International City/County Management Association. The city consistently receives Sunny awards for local government transparency from the Sunshine Review, a non-profit organization that advocates government transparency. Additionally, this model has allowed Phoenix to provide efficient services and some of the lowest housing prices and commute times of any large North American city. It is a track record worthy of emulation.


Eliminating the ability of council to intervene directly in the city administration of Canadian cities would burn away the fog that reduces the transparency of city operations. It would let some much needed sunshine into City Hall. While there might be some parties with vested interests in the current system, increased transparency and accountability would be of immense benefit to any Canadian community.