Closed-door EPC briefings pose challenge for Winnipeg's 'openness and transparency' mayor

When Brian Bowman was elected mayor, he promised to be more open and transparent than his predecessors. But his EPC meets behind closed doors.

Advance briefings for mayor's inner circle started before Bowman was mayor, but have not ended

Mayor Brian Bowman no longer denies the existence of closed-door EPC meetings. (John Einarson/CBC)

In theory, no decision at city council is final until all 16 of Winnipeg's elected officials hold a vote. In reality, this is nonsense when it comes to all but a minuscule amount of council votes.

Well before council debates any issue, Winnipeg's mayor and his advisers have a good idea how the vote will go.

This is not simply because the mayor doesn't like surprises on the floor of council and has his finger on the pulse of his colleagues. It's also because the vast majority of contentious issues are decided well before council debates them in public. Heck, they're decided even before executive policy committee — the mayor's inner circle — votes on them in public.

The real decision-making in the council building begins behind closed doors during informal meetings of EPC, which functions a lot like the mayor's cabinet.

The meetings, which may be described by councillors as briefing sessions but can be more strategic in nature, are not a new facet of city hall. 

Murray and Katz did this, too

Former mayor Glen Murray's EPC met behind closed doors to consider motions and reports before they were made public. Former mayor Sam Katz's EPC did the same, and even did so under a formal name: IEPC, or internal executive policy committee.

When Brian Bowman was elected mayor, he promised to be more open and transparent than his predecessors. But his EPC also meets behind closed doors.

The first time he was asked about these meetings, Bowman declined to acknowledge their existence. But it's impossible to pretend you're not holding meetings with city officials when a parade of senior managers can be seen entering and exiting the mayor's office when all seven members of EPC — as well as allied councillors Jenny Gerbasi and Matt Allard, on occasion — are already inside.

Jackalopes and unicorns

More recently, Bowman has dropped the pretense that closed-door EPC briefings are as fictitious as jackalopes, unicorns and Winnipeg's chances of landing Amazon's HQ2. 

He now acknowledges his de facto cabinet does in fact meet when reporters and cameras are not present.

"All members of council meet with each other in that fashion," Bowman said in an interview last week, referring to members of EPC as well as council's unofficial opposition.

"What's important for me is that decisions are made in an open, transparent way and the information we're using to base decisions on is proactively put out in the public for everybody to look at."

True enough, reports that arrive at EPC on Wednesdays are typically made public on the Friday beforehand, while reports that first appear at other council committees are published even earlier.

But the lead time for public scrutiny does not change the fact the mayor and his allies can determine the course of council decisions well before any vote is made. The formation of EPC + 2 — EPC plus Gerbasi and Allard — gives the mayor the opportunity to ensure he has the nine votes he needs to pass any piece of legislation on the floor of the 16-member council — or advance warning of a potential defeat.

It was fiction when Glen Murray and Sam Katz claimed council makes the final decisions at city hall. It's also fiction when Bowman makes a similar claim.

The opposition 'Oak Room caucus'

While council's unofficial opposition regularly meets in secret — up until recently, at the Oak Room in the St. Regis Hotel — councillors Russ Wyatt, Ross Eadie, Janice Lukes, Jeff Browaty, Shawn Dobson and Jason Schreyer don't possess the power of Bowman's governing coalition.

"It's a little different in that they have a special type of access with the public service with those meetings," said Browaty, who used to serve on Bowman's EPC.

While the Oak Room caucus is capable of creating collective strategies, the opposition councillors don't have advance knowledge of what city hall is planning or the ability​ to ask senior city managers about those plans.

Again, Bowman isn't the first mayor to take advantage of this sort of access. But they do pose a problem when you consider his primary promise during the 2014 municipal election campaign.

At the end of the scandal-plagued Sam Katz era, Brian Bowman promised to be more open and transparent than the mayors who came before him.

"He said he was going to be a very open, very democratic mayor and so it's very hard to meet the standard that he actually set for himself in the last election campaign," said Royce Koop, an associate professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba. 

"Is he meeting it? He's done some things that are positive. But I'm not sure he's met that very high standard that he set for himself."

Progress on opening up

The mayor would counter that he's done many things to foster more openness and transparency. He pushed for an integrity commissioner. He made it almost impossible for councillors to claim booze as an expense. He's trying to create a cooling-off period for departing city councillors and he's called on the province to call a public inquiry into Winnipeg's real-estate and capital procurement scandals.

Less successfully, he's brought in a voluntary lobbyist registry that only has four names, to date. He has not been able to convince senior city officials to end the odious practice of denying freedom-of-information requests that the very same officials have the discretion to release.

And his lieutenants continue to meet behind closed doors, as Katz's cabinet and Murray's EPC also did.

To Bowman, this does not appear to be a transparency issue. He characterizes the closed-door briefings as sour grapes on the part of Browaty and Lukes, two former EPC members who have taken to complaining about a lack of access to information.

"The criticisms that you're talking about are coming from two members of council who started their criticism the day after they were removed from EPC," Bowman said.

That may very well be true. But there is nothing open or transparent about a closed-door briefing, no matter how well-intentioned this mayor may be.


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.