Explained: Winnipeg city hall’s power imbalance

The public is welcome at Winnipeg city hall. But democratic power problems remain/Tyler Searle photo

By Margaret Spratt

On the surface, Winnipeg’s city council seems like your typical western democratic forum. Voters elect its politicians with a secret ballot at regular intervals. Council agendas, voting records and minutes are posted online for all to read.

Meetings are streamed via YouTube. Meeting agendas and a wealth of other documentation are proactively disclosed online. Citizens can physically go to 510 Main St. to make their voices heard or follow a number of other feedback loops to speak up.

But look just below the surface, some say, and you find big problems with the way political power is wielded.

The importance of city hall

City hall plays a vital role in people’s everyday lives. Some of the things city hall deals with are water, waste, roads and recreation. Decisions made at city hall translates to community health, and the quality of services communities receive.

“It’s important that that level of government be as responsible as possible to the people who live here,” said Molly McCracken, the Manitoba director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

There are currently 15 councillors at city hall, each representing a geographic ward and also dealing with and voting on what to do about city-wide issues.

The Executive Policy Committee (EPC) is made up of six of those members and chaired by the sitting mayor — many think of the EPC as the mayor’s inner circle.

The mayor appoints chairs of the major standing committees, like finance, water and waste and property and development.

If an EPC member disagrees with the mayor, they can be removed from EPC with the snap of a finger — although this doesn’t happen a lot.

When Mayor Brian Bowman won the mayoral race in 2014, he promised to make substantial changes to EPC — starting with revising the appointment process.

Eight years later, things have stayed the same — in fact, the issues Bowman promised to solve have only gotten worse.

Because the mayor appoints the six EPC members, he can fairly expect to net seven of the nine votes needed for items to pass when council votes as a whole.

In an unusual move in 2016, Bowman began informally inviting two other, non-EPC, councillors to regularly attend private meetings. These were confidential sessions—the group would get access to budgets and briefings before council meetings.

This became known as ‘EPC+2.’

Some sitting councillors complain that as it exists today, EPC has too much power.

What does good governance look like?

In 2018, council approved $175,000 for a consultant’s review of its governance structure and processes. This review, produced by accounting firm MNP and released to the public in early January recommended reform and outlined seven principles of good governance:

  • Accountability
  • Transparency
  • Efficiency
  • Inclusivity
  • Impartiality
  • Learning

But the current EPC power structure complicates these things. The first red flag is on transparency.

Reports given to the major standing committees are all initially vetted by the mayor’s office, MNP found.

In other words, this means the mayor has oversight over the flow of information given to councillors.

Another red flag is inclusivity.

“The mayor has a lot of control on who sits on the EPC,” said McCracken. “If they endorse something then they have the votes to bring it to council to be passed. This creates a challenge because diverse needs aren’t always represented on council.”

The governance review outlined 15 recommendations that could help strengthen the city’s governance structure.

Number four, for example, suggests that city hall “establish maximum number of appointments by the Mayor to ensure these appointments plus the mayor, do not exceed 50 per cent of council”.

Twitter: @margaret_spratt

Edit: May 1, 8:40 p.m.:Corrects address


  1. It’s say on the second paragraph 511 main st. The actual address is 510 main st. City hall

Leave a Reply