It's all about who you know

Tremblay is taking a team approach to cleaning up Montreal's sleaze

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National Post, Friday, November 20, 2009

Montreal is unique: It's the only city in Canada with a party system functioning under Westminster rules of cabinet and caucus solidarity.

It's also, at 64 members, the largest city council in North America on a per capita basis of its 1.6 million population. Toronto, with 2.5 million people, has a 44-member council, all of whom sit as independents. New York, with eight million people, has a 51-member council divided among Democrats and Republicans in a tradition going back to Tammany Hall.

But in a break with party government going back to Jean Drapeau, Mayor Gerald Tremblay is proposing a form of French co-habitation on top of the Westminster model. He's invited both opposition parties, Vision Montreal and Projet Montreal, to join his Union Montreal in running the city by offering each a seat on the 11-member executive committee.

He has also, uniquely in history, appointed himself chairman of the executive committee, as well as mayor of the downtown borough of Ville Marie. He's promised to sweep a broom through City Hall, after a campaign in which charges of cash in envelopes and collusion on city contracts dominated the media frame.

Well, if the city's governance doesn't improve, Tremblay will have no one to blame but himself. A former head of the executive committee, Frank Zampino, vacationed on a yacht belonging to the largest contractor in the province, and then when he left City Hall two years ago went to work for one of the contractor's companies. The same contractor reportedly delivered cash in envelopes to a former borough head who was planning a mayoral bid.

In a recent cover story, Maclean's magazine basically said Montreal was run by the mob. That might be a bit of an exaggeration. But cries for a public inquiry have been answered by Premier Jean Charest, who has appointed a police task force with special powers of the kind that broke up the biker gangs a decade ago.

No one has ever questioned Tremblay's personal integrity, but he could have been more attentive to what was going on around him. Now, he'll have no choice.

In the Montreal model, the mayor is the city's CEO, responsible for the vision thing and the bottom line, while the chair of the executive committee is the chief operating officer who actually runs the administration. It's been this way since the formidable team of Drapeau and Lucien Saulnier dominated the city in the 1960s and 1970s.

Tremblay is taking a lot on his own shoulders. A Harvard business graduate with a strong record as industry minister in Quebec's 1989-93 Bourassa government, he would rather talk about Michael Porter's theory of competitive advantage as a model for

Montreal than dealing in paving contracts. As CEO and COO, he's going to be dealing with both. How the co-habitation will work remains to be seen. Tremblay's erstwhile opponents in the campaign will now become his allies. Richard Bergeron, the head of Projet Montreal, once declared that the events of 9/11 were a conspiracy by the U.S. government (which, had he won the mayoralty, would have made for interesting conversations with the mayor of New York). He's been named head of urban planning, which he actually knows something about. A Vision Montreal councillor, Lyn Theriault, has been named to head social development and families. Each member of the executive has a portfolio, just as in the Westminster cabinet system.

But what happens when the two opposition parties disagree with a decision by the local cabinet in which their own members sit? This does not appear to be an arrangement that, in structural terms, is built to last.

But in the short term, all parties agree on the need for campaign finance reform. Tremblay has already had this conversation with Charest, and Quebec is likely to impose its own election finance rules on municipalities -- no corporate donations, no cash, and full disclosure. That will take the paper bags out of the system.

As for city contracts, collusion and price fixing by contractors has added untold millions to costs. There is also all-party agreement that it needs to be cleaned up.

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