The Better Voter Series: Mayoral candidate wants to disband the executive policy committee

Limiting mayor’s powers will increase accountability, says Nancy Thomas

With the civic election race on, ideas and opinions on what Winnipeg’s Executive Policy Committee should look like are surfacing. Cindy Titus

In a campaign where the buzz words are “openness” and “transparency,” mayoral candidate Nancy Thomas is proposing a bold method to clean up accountability on Winnipeg’s city council.

“I want every city councillor to be a member of the executive policy committee (EPC),” she said, meaning that all the functions of the EPC would be delegated to council as a whole.

The EPC is a six-member, cabinet-style body, appointed by the mayor and made up of the deputy mayor as well as the chairs of each standing policy committee, such as infrastructure renewal and downtown development.

The EPC is responsible for making the city budget and drafting policy for debate at the council level.

Because he appointed them, mayor Sam Katz has been able to rely on all members of the EPC over the last several years to vote with him on any particular motion on council. Additionally, he has had the support of at least two other like-minded councillors on Winnipeg’s 16-member council.

“This has to do with open and honest government,” said Thomas, explaining that because the mayor can manufacture a majority on council through EPC appointments, he has no reason to inform opposition councillors about important contracts or proposals before a vote.

To back up her claims, Thomas pointed to the largely confidential Veolia wastewater contract and a decision last year to put automated garbage bins in the city’s northwest quadrant, which was opposed by councillors who felt suddenly sidelined by the proposal. 

Thomas is in favour of retaining standing policy committees, with the committee chairpersons making proposals directly to city council.

The council as a whole would then vote on those proposals and would reach a consensus on the annual capital and operating budgets, she said.

I want every city councillor to be a member of the executive policy committee.

Nancy Thomas, mayoral candidate

However, Thomas’s bold initiative may be fraught with problems.

“You’re not going to get 16 people trying to develop a budget, it’s not going to work,” said Jae Eadie, a retired Winnipeg city councillor.

Eadie represented the St. James ward for 26 years and was named Winnipeg’s first speaker of council in 1989.

He believes that making council part of the EPC, which would essentially disband the committee, is neither necessary nor feasible for Winnipeg.

“As a candidate, she (Thomas) should know that the mayor does not have the power to disband the EPC, that is the job of the province,” he added.

Winnipeg’s city council has had an executive policy committee since the establishment of Unicity and the City of Winnipeg Charter Act of 1972.

The act has gone through several changes since that time, including a major overhaul in 1989 that resulted in the mayor being given authority to appoint the EPC rather than council electing its members.

Any changes to the act must be passed by Manitoba’s provincial legislature with the added consent of city council. As a result, it would be virtually impossible to rally members of both council and the provincial government to disband the EPC, he said.

Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, is more cautious.

“I think it’s a tough question,” he said. “There are certainly voters expectations about accountability but there is also the fact ... that not everything needs to be debated.”

He added that after over 20 years of an appointed EPC structure, it may be time for a review.

Published in Volume 65, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 23, 2010)

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