Conspiracies and conflicts of interest have plagued Winnipeg’s City Hall for the better part of the last 10 years, experts agree, but will the City of Winnipeg’s newest position create a more open and honest municipal government?
The mayor thinks so, but a longtime city hall critic says the city is worse off than ever.
The city will be hiring for the position of integrity commissioner, a position dedicated to investigating, advising, and educating city councillors on potential conflicts of interest.
“Ultimately the integrity commissioner would be responsible for…mitigating occurrences like we’ve seen at city hall in previous administrations,” says Mayor Brian Bowman.
Winnipeg’s previous mayor, Sam Katz, was accused of having numerous potential conflicts of interest while in office. As well, an RCMP investigation into the Winnipeg Police Service’s new downtown headquarters is still ongoing.
Bowman says his administration inherited a city hall Winnipeggers felt they couldn’t trust.
“This is obviously a key part of how we’re going to move forward to restore trust in city hall,” he says.
Brian Kelcey, former Special Advisor to Mayor Katz — now public policy and communications consultant, says the integrity commissioner provides a neutral party for the mayor and councillors to get a more responsible or ethical opinion on matters they are unsure of.
Kelcey spoke of Katz’s issues with Parcel 4, a property across from the Katz owned Goldeyes’ stadium (Shaw Park), as an example of a potential conflict of interest.
Shindico was the winning bidder on the Parcel 4 property, Kelcey says, in a bizarre process almost leading to the construction of a hotel directly across the street from the Goldeyes’ site — immediately creating a conflict of interest.
“I wonder if Katz had gotten, or taken different advice — if it had come from a more neutral official — if things would have looked different had the mayor done more to separate his public responsibilities from his personal ones,” says Kelcey.
As with many high-level city officers, the position will be appointed by city council — this is the norm in other cities across Canada, according to Kelcey.
“If all of council is voting on (the position), it’s usually pretty safe,” says Kelcey. “Three or four members can stand up and say if there is a reason not to hire a particular person.”
But the City of Winnipeg Charter — implemented and controlled by the province — states, “There is no legislated procedure for complaints or investigations into allegations of breaches of the city code.”
The charter says the next step would be to refer the matter to the city auditor. But David Sanders, city hall critic and mayoral candidate in the last civic election, says the city is failing to use such authority.
“The city auditor has the authority to subpoena documents and witnesses to investigate matters,” says Sanders.
“Various inquiries have been held…on major projects of the city. The city auditor could have delegated authority to (an) external auditor to insist on getting the facts of the matter, and they haven’t.
“If they’re not going to use their existing authority, it remains to be seen what will be done with this,” he says.
Drew Caldwell, Manitoba’s Minister of Municipal Government, says the province is willing to amend the charter to give authoritative power to the integrity commissioner, but such amendments won’t be reviewed until February.
“In terms of priorities, amending the charter falls somewhere below healthcare, infrastructure, education, justice, but it’s an important issue for the mayor,” says Caldwell.
“There are a lot of things far more significant from a governance perspective for the Province of Manitoba than an integrity commissioner for the City of Winnipeg,” he says.
Heading into the provincial election, Caldwell says the integrity commissioner will not be an election issue despite public interest.
Caldwell says Manitobans have more interest in the quality of their healthcare, schools and infrastructure rather than “naughty city councillors.”
Kelcey says without authoritative power added from the province, Winnipeggers should limit their expectation of the new position.
If a city has to wait for amendments from the province, it’s better for the city, and citizens, if the city takes things as far as it legally can on its own, Kelcey adds.
Mayor Bowman agrees.
“The sooner we’re able to secure a person to fill the position, the sooner we can have the charter amended, the better,” says Bowman. “In the meantime we’re going to do the best we can within the current framework.”
Bowman laughed as he expressed his hope of not having too many potential conflicts of interest during his administration, but he says there are times in government where the expertise of an integrity commissioner would help.
Kelcey agrees, and says an integrity commissioner doesn’t solve any problems if people aren’t willing to play along. He says the city would still need someone to field complaints if officials are holding onto potential conflicts behind closed doors.
Caldwell says with granting authoritative power to the commissioner, along with adding to whistleblower protection to the Winnipeg charter, should promote ethical behaviour within city hall.
However, Sanders disagrees, saying the mayor ran on a campaign promise that he would not withhold city information under the Freedom of Information Act. But he says the city has failed to openly offer information to the public on more than one occasion.
Sanders says the mayor’s failure to honour the promise of a more open and honest government makes this council worse than previous administrations in terms of transparency.
“The campaign promise the mayor made was that he would not withhold city reports and information on discretionary grounds under the Freedom of Information Act,” says Sanders.
“Yet, one example is the southwest rapid transit corridor project, and the cost benefit analysis that was supposed to justify spending $1 billion — they refused to release the report.”
Sanders says when he filed his information request, the city denied him. He says he appealed to the ombudsmen, who released the report to him, but the city redacted every single number within the report, rendering it useless.
“If this is how they’re going to respond to people, this is hardly public engagement, this is hardly open and transparent — it’s not an impressive performance to date,” he says.
“You can’t assume having an integrity commissioner arrive, suddenly coats every city activity with a nice ethical glow,” says Kelcey.
He says although the new commissioner isn’t a “magic wand” for ethical concerns, it would aid in ridding the city of such a culture.
“If you’re worried about who polices the integrity commissioner, it’s oddly easier for the public to know if the integrity commissioner is being fair than it is to know if the people the integrity commissioner is investigating are being fair,” he says.
Typically, people who end up as integrity commissioners have professional standards to uphold, according to Kelcey.
And although Mayor Bowman says he’s unsure of what type of resumes will be considered, Kelcey says integrity commissioners in other Canadian cities have come from niche backgrounds including lawyers, judges and former cops.
“If they’re performing badly or letting council off on too many things — even if they aren’t facing a penalty directly — there are going to be professional consequences for them in other roles,” says Kelcey.
The mayor says the position will not be a City of Winnipeg employee, and will be kept at an arms length of city staff. He says the annual budget of the office of the integrity commissioner has been set at $100,000.
Bowman says once more information is gathered and the position is filled, the city will then look at bulking out the office’s budget.