Trust at Winnipeg city hall falls over golf course plan

Some say the debate over privatizing and selling municipal golf courses is having a serious impact on trust at Winnipeg's city hall.
Ontario-based GolfNorth has expressed interest in running the the golf courses at Kildonan Park, Windsor Park, Crescent Drive and Harbour View (pictured above). ((Ryan Hicks/CBC))

Some say the debate over privatizing and selling municipal golf courses is having a serious impact on trust at Winnipeg's city hall.

Delegation after delegation spoke out at an executive policy committee (EPC) meeting Wednesday against selling off and leasing golf courses. They also criticized the $90,000 spent by the city for an ad campaign urging people to lobby councillors to approve the proposal.

Almost all of the nine delegations said they've lost trust in councillors and the public process.

What particularly irked them the veiled ads that claimed to be from a group called "Responsible Winnipeg." Rather than a citizen group, it was the city's Office of Policy Development and Communications.

However, the City of Winnipeg logo was not included on the ads. 

"We've got some work to do to restore trust," said Coun. Brian Mayes.

"I think this Responsible Winnipeg campaign is kind of, I mean I don't blame people for being upset about that. I'm upset about it … and it is misspent taxpayer money."

A citizens' group called Outdoor Urban Recreation Spaces (OURS) Winnipeg said the controversy over the issue has brought trust in city hall to a new low.

"There has to be substantive change so that we have true accountability, openness [and] transparency," said spokesman Ron Mazur.

"[We have to] involve and engage the citizens [on] the decisions moving forward and then everybody can proceed forward in a united basis. But we don't have that now, and that's sad."

The typically-united EPC narrowly passed by golf course plan by a 4-3 vote on Wednesday.

Mayor Sam Katz, who supports the privatization plan, doesn't think the ad campaign — which launched last week — had any impact on the votes.

"I would say to you the vote was probably exactly what it would have been, nothing's changed. EPC members and non-EPC, they've basically all known for the last couple of weeks what their thoughts were," he said.

"Nothing would change."

The plan will next go to council for a final decision on May 29.

Mayes, who opposes the plan, predicts it will not pass at city council because it won't have the support of two-thirds of councillors.

Katz also conceded the deal will likely die at council but he maintains the courses are a big drain on public finances.

The city's auditors have found that fewer golfers are playing at the public courses, helping lead to a loss of about $836,530 in 2011.

But the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) insists the courses make money and should continue to be controlled by the city.

"You had a number of companies putting a bid opportunity in to try and take [the golf courses] over. If these were very much losing propositions they just wouldn't be doing that," said CUPE president Mike Davidson.

The unions has started running radio ads to persuade people to get involved in the debate.

"It's just a reminder to let people know when city council is [voting on the issue] … and to come down and if they want to express their views this would be the place to do it," said Davidson.