Towards Democracy at City Hall – Report from Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives MB

MEDIA RELEASE:  The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives MB will release its report “Winnipeg Free for All: Towards Democracy at City Hall” on Wednesday, November 1, 2017. The release will take place at City Hall, in the court yard, at 10 a.m.

The report, by Owen Toews, takes us through Winnipeg’s political history and explains how the current ‘strong mayor’ model of civic governance works and how it evolved.  The mayor dictates city council decisions by controlling membership in the Executive Policy Committee (EPC), a privileged group of city councillors. While EPC councillors are not required to follow the mayor’s lead, the access to information, notoriety, and increased salary bestowed by EPC membership means that they almost always do. This gives the mayor a voting bloc large enough to win almost any city council vote.  According to Toews, “The existence of the EPC creates a two-tier system that leaves the non-EPC majority of city council out of crucial policy-development processes.”

Furthermore, the egregious amount of power given to the unelected Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) – an individual with as much if not more power than city council itself – further bolsters the power of the mayor, who is able to hire or fire the CAO via EPC. Removing the mayor’s power over EPC and redistributing the power of – or abolishing – the CAO are the most immediate steps a reform effort could take.

Toews also explains that “The concentration of power and the further exclusion of everyday people has also been achieved by slashing the number of city councillors and by abolishing formal avenues for citizen participation, such as Resident Advisory Groups and Community Committees. The paltry fifteen city councillors we have now – down from fifty in 1972 – means that there are twice as many provincial ridings in Winnipeg as there are municipal wards, despite the fact that the local state is supposed to be the level of government most  directly accessible to the people.”

In sum, the “strong mayor”, EPC, CAO, large wards, lack of participation structures – is the result of a decades-long reactionary movement to gut local democracy under the guise of “streamlining” and “efficiency”.  Toews emphasizes that “Shuttered pools, libraries, and community centres, poor and expensive bus service, skyrocketing homelessness, underfunded youth services, and a militarized police force are, in part, the concrete results of a forty-year attack on local democracy”.

The report concludes that the power struggle currently taking place at City Hall gives us a rare chance to correct one of the structural determinants keeping Winnipeg from becoming the city we need it to be. Reforms to EPC may be necessary but they will not be enough. We need new structures that enable everyday people to reach the levers of power.

Media is encouraged to speak to Owen Toews at the launch, or phone him at 204 588 4036. Media can also contact Lynne Fernandez at the CCPA at 204 619 3243.