The Better Voter Series: You can’t fight city hall… or so the saying goes

Wastewater utility decision shows that civil society gains are possible

The obstacles facing citizen groups and social justice advocates who attempt to influence policy decisions at the municipal level can seem insurmountable. Indeed, this sentiment may have something to do with the abysmally low voter turnout that typically dogs civic elections.

Therefore, it is critical to acknowledge and celebrate occasions when civil society does have an impact on political decision making.

One such occasion would be the role of citizens’ pressure in affecting changes to the governance model of the city’s water and waste services.

The new plan for managing these critical services was first brought to the attention to Winnipeggers in the fall of 2008.

The scheme would have, according to the wording of the motion introduced at city council, set up “a new arms-length business model to operate city owned utilities” including water and sewage treatment. Secondarily, the city would procure a “strategic partner” to “design, construct, finance and operate” Winnipeg’s pollution control centres.

This apparent move toward greater privatization of government services was greeted with suspicion and some alarm by a number of citizens and citizen groups.

In the face of this perceived new threat, a coalition of community, student, church and union groups sprang up in opposition to the new arrangement. These groups faced the daunting task of confronting an indifferent press and a powerful mayor notoriously dismissive of anyone challenging his “running the city like a business” philosophy.

As it turned out, Mayor Sam Katz got more than he bargained for.

These progressive forces came together under the moniker of “Water Watch,” and began to undertake a number of outreach efforts geared toward warning the general public and foiling the mayor’s dangerous agenda for water and waste services in the city.

Katz, for his part, accused these community groups of “fear-mongering” and of misleading people into thinking the city was privatizing its water. A couple of “public consultations” at the Masonic temple flopped and were seen by attendees as more of a sales pitch than anything else.

By mid-July of 2009, a community forum on the plan sponsored by the Council of Women of Manitoba convened at the Unitarian Church. It invited three city administrators to explain the merits of the plan to an audience of nearly 300. The officials left the forum before questions from the crowd could be fielded.

Op-ed pieces and letters to the editor began appearing frequently in the paper, mostly critical of the mayor’s plan. Even Winnipeg Free Press editorial writers who were initially supportive of the plan began to express reservations.

The tide of public opinion had turned against the mayor.

On July 21, 2009, the eve of the council vote, 300 people showed up at a city hall rally denouncing the planned utility model.

The next day, galleries on both sides of the council chamber were filled to capacity. More than 30 delegations from a variety of groups and perspectives signaled their disapproval of the plan.

In spite of all of this, the motion passed 10 to six in favour of creating the arms-length corporate water utility.

Yet, all was not lost. On the positive side, a couple of amendments were moved through to address citizens’ concerns, including a provision that mandated the new utility be similar in form to Manitoba Hydro. Consequently, the province would have to insist on tough guidelines ensuring greater transparency and accountability.

Furthermore, the role of the strategic partner, Veolia Canada, was reduced to consultancy in the design, construction and long-term maintenance of the wastewater upgrades. Financing, a major sticking point for activists, would be excluded from the private partner’s responsibility.

Whether the mayor is ultimately held to account on this critical public interest concern, however, will of course depend on the willingness of the electorate to continue the job Water Watch started.

Oct. 27 is an important day: a day when you get to choose your city, and your future.

Michael Welch is a community activist and broadcaster with CKUW 95.9 FM. He is currently the chair of the Winnipeg chapter of the Council of Canadians and co-chair of Winnipeg Water Watch.

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

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