Brian Bowman reflects on 2015, first year as Winnipeg mayor
Office looks different but new mayor still cleaning up inherited messes
Brian Bowman has made the physical office of mayor more his own over the past year. He moved the big desk to a more comfortable spot in the room and brought in some personal mementos he gathered in year one of his mayoralty.
There is a hand-drawn picture of some Star Wars lightsabers on the board table, courtesy of one of his sons.
Wrestling the agenda away from the landmines buried by the previous city council and civic administration is proving much more difficult than interior decorating. The list is extensive: the police headquarters project and associated ongoing RCMP investigation, a years-long tax freeze that crippled city finances, thousands of invalid parking tickets, expropriation hearings that allege poor practice by city officials, a water treatment fiasco that is just starting to burble up to the surface.
None of his making, but all Bowman and this council's to clean up.
It is not a surprise that when CBC News sat down with Mayor Bowman for a year-end chat, his temples showed a trace of grey, and there's a hint of dark circles under his eyes.
"We are off to a strong start. We have a lot of work ahead, but one is after 14 years of property tax cuts and freezes, investing more heavily than ever before in road repairs. And that was something I was really happy to see, that council stepped up and invested more than ever before," said Bowman, who was elected in October 2014.
With a nod to the mess that he inherited, Bowman also believes one accomplishment is a change in attitude.
"It was a city hall where public trust was very low, and we had a fractured city council that was really what I would describe as divide-and-conquer politics — them-and-us and really old-school politics — and we've worked really hard, collaboratively as a council, to really work together more. And so I think we are off to a strong start in that respect, and I think the tone at city hall has moved in the right direction," Bowman said.
He also mentioned Winnipeg's response to the Maclean's article labelling it Canada's most racist city as a moment he counts as a success — with a caveat.
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"Like I said on Jan. 22, we are not going to end racism, but we are going to work as a community and we are going to lead the nation. Coming out of the Maclean's [article], I challenged the community to dig deep and try to do better."
Part of the response was the launch of onewinnipeg.ca and its goal to listen to Winnipeggers' views of racism, Bowman said. He touted his creation of the Mayor's Indigenous Advisory Circle as part of the effort to invest in and improve the lives of aboriginal people in the city. Bowman also said his administration is reviewing the results from the One Summit held in the fall and promised announcements in late January on initiatives coming out of that event.
Failures (or regrets)
No journalist in the city could skip over the very public spat between Bowman and True North Sports and Entertainment owner Mark Chipman last winter, but Bowman brought it up unprompted when asked to describe failures or regrets during his first year in office.
The controversy related to the development of a piece of property at 220 Carleton St., next to the now-expanded RBC Convention Centre. The blow-up featured a visibly angered Chipman lashing out at Bowman in a remarkable news conference after the mayor publicly challenged the way the file was handled by staff at city development agency CentreVenture.
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"What we walked into here at city hall in terms of 220 Carleton was a very difficult situation that we were forced to confront. We took a strong position here at city hall. Certainly one thing I've learned over the last year is the choice of words that I used in dealing with a very difficult situation obviously could have been better, and certainly the need to strengthen relationships while dealing with difficult decisions is an ongoing challenge."
Chipman's anger in part focused on the mayor's use of words such as "backroom deal." The war of words was even more extraordinary because Chipman had made a rare foray into politics earlier by publicly endorsing Bowman in the municipal election.
Bowman now supports the True North development plan for the area and said some bridges have been rebuilt with Chipman.
"I think we have a very positive working relationship. This is someone who has invested heavily in our community and as I have said consistently, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and True North and True North Foundation. They do incredible work."
However Bowman wishes to characterize the relationship now, it was probably Chipman's last time supporting a political figure — at least publicly.
Open and transparent
The mayor can be credited with some big leaps in making civic government more accountable. He campaigned on it relentlessly and "O and T" pepper his comments. Citizens and journalists can find more city information online than ever before.
However, not all of those promises are yet fulfilled and some suffer upkeep issues. A pledge for online conflict of interest disclosures by mayor and council has yet to materialize and web reports of the "who and what" of meetings in the mayor's office hasn't been updated since August.
Bowman admitted there have been "growing pains" in meeting some commitments, but said they are "moving in the right direction and there is a lot more work to do. We are off to a strong start."
Big bad budget
The city's financial woes will dominate the first few months of 2016. Catch a councillor on the mayor's executive policy committee on the way to a budget meeting and smiles tighten and brows furrow in concern. It's that bad.
The first question for Bowman was how can the city balance the books and maintain service? The challenge put to him was to respond without saying anything about a "new source of revenue from other governments" or "new deal" or "new fiscal model."
Bowman couldn't do it.
"I campaigned on trying to secure a new modern funding model from our financial partners and that effort is ongoing. But in the meantime, it's right to ask what are we doing with the framework we have to operate in. This year we began the budget process with a $74-million shortfall, approximately, that has to be reconciled."
Bowman noted the city has a debt ceiling and balanced budget legislation that force fiscal prudence. Then he opened the door — a crack perhaps — to where the city may be headed.
"The challenge we have is as we grow as a community, that growth is paying for growth. I certainly feel we should have as many options for families in a growing city to live in existing neighbourhoods and new neighbourhoods … but ensuring that existing property owners aren't disproportionately paying for the growth is something we will have to deal with."
So does that mean fees for new developments? Bowman said the budget consultations with the public may tell council what Winnipeggers want, but wouldn't bite on a yes or no to development fees. Nor would he commit to capping new housing developments.
Right now new neighbourhoods in Winnipeg are not paying for themselves through the property taxes they generate, he said.
He was less coy about how huge neighbourhoods like Waverely West were allowed to be built with no revenue to finance infrastructure needs built into them.
"Clearly, the planning could have been better," he said.
There are difficult decisions ahead, Bowman warned, but public transit is not something he will abandon.
When pressed again on how to balance the budget — i.e. cuts to services or other options — Bowman deferred. We'll wait to hear from Winnipeggers first, he said.
Bowman invited U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to Winnipeg after the bombastic property developer said he'd ban Muslims from entering the United States.
Bowman said there has been no response from Trump. He'd rather see the businessman-turned-politician at the Museum for Human Rights than in the Oval Office, he said, calling Trump's diatribes dangerous and offensive.
Despite a backlash in social media and elsewhere, Bowman said he has no regrets about making the invitation.
"You're going to have debate on these things — they are controversial — and that is something I welcome."
After a year and change in office, it's clear, like or dislike what Bowman has done, there is definitely a new mayor in town. Journalists who lurk at city hall late in the day will note Bowman is not a nine-to-five worker. He's there early and stays late, and if you are looking for him on weekends, you won't have to dial a long-distance number.
When asked if after a year, he would run for the same job again, he said it's way too early to answer that question, but he hasn't run out of gas yet.
"I have ambitious plans for my day, for myself and city, and I try to pack in a lot each day. So when I get home, I absolutely feel the effects of working hard. But I have been invigorated by the year. It has been an incredible experience."
It's a question that will have to be re-asked after the city tables its 2016 budget.