For more than 13 months, Phil Sheegl was a bureaucratic version of a dead man walking -- a senior city official destined to be fired or forced to resign whenever city council finally decided it was time to pull the plug on his career.
With a majority of councillors finally poised to reach for the electrical switch, Sheegl decided to end the death watch himself, resigning his position of Winnipeg’s chief administrative officer days before the release of an external audit into a scandal- plagued fire-paramedic- station replacement program he oversaw.
Outside city hall, Sheegl's departure appeared to be a sudden move. Inside the council building, however, Sam Katz and his executive policy committee colleagues executed a preplanned series of disciplined manoeuvres.
At 9 a.m., all seven EPC members filed into the mayor's office for an informal briefing. At 10:31 a.m., Katz called a closed-door formal meeting of the same group of people across the hall in the west committee room.
At 10:45 a.m., the committee accepted Sheegl's resignation from the CAO position he had held since May 2011. At 10:58 a.m., Katz's communications director, Rhea Yates, announced Sheegl's departure to all media.
And by 11:22 a.m., Katz was standing before reporters, insisting he had no idea why an ally and confidante he once described as "a good friend" had left the position he had fought to retain for the past 13 months.
"A lot of people have been under a lot of pressure. Some people have different limitations," Katz told reporters, nonetheless claiming Sheegl's departure had nothing to do with the fire-paramedic review slated to be made public Monday.
"I don't believe there's any (connection) but we'll all know for sure whether there is any," Katz said. "There will be all sorts of theories and I have no doubt in my mind the falling-on-the-sword theory will be out there."
While the mayor played coy, all six other EPC members closed ranks, declining to reveal how long Sheegl's resignation was in the works.
"I wish Mr. Sheegl all the best," said Coun. Russ Wyatt, who penned a scathing letter last fall that called on the CAO to resign or be fired for what the Transcona councillor described as "sophisticated incompetence."
It was left to Sheegl to explain his resignation in a letter to council, during which he referenced "a trying year" for public servants struggling to deal with "so much negativity regarding the construction of four new fire-paramedic stations."
Sheegl went on to express pride in the fire-paramedic construction program, which inspired both the external review expected Monday and a broader audit of city real estate transactions.
Sheegl did not respond to multiple requests for comment Thursday. He started with the city in 2008 as director of planning, property and development and was promoted six months later to deputy chief administrative officer. He became CAO in 2011, following a nationwide search.
In 2012, Sheegl ran afoul of several councillors for selling an Arizona shell company to the mayor and reacquiring it several weeks later. He also faced scrutiny for his oversight of several major city projects, including the over-budget conversion of the former downtown Canada Post building into new headquarters for the Winnipeg Police Service and the troubled fire-paramedic-station replacement program.
Katz's decision to call an external review into the project, which included the construction of a fire-paramedic station on land the city does not own as well as a since-cancelled land swap, staved off a council push to get rid of Sheegl in 2012.
That move regained momentum last fall after fire-paramedic chief Reid Douglas -- another figure central to the external review -- was dismissed without explanation.
Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie, who was preparing a motion to fire Sheegl next week, said he is relieved to see the CAO step down on his own accord. "We lost confidence in him and I don't think the public trusted him," said Eadie, one of five councillors who voted against the decision to name Sheegl the CAO in 2011.
"Hopefully, as a result of this, we can renew the public trust in the public service and our council," added Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, noting she was never comfortable with the Sheegl-Katz relationship.
Katz refused to reflect on whether it was wise to have a friend in the CAO's office. He also denied Sheegl had become a political liability, insisting he can win re-election in 2014 with or without the former CAO. Katz also refused to say whether Sheegl received severance pay or speculate as to whether council could claw back such pay if the fire-paramedic review finds him culpable.
Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck said the city should disclose the terms of any severance and noted it was convenient to usher Sheegl out of office before Monday's review.
"I think this makes a bold statement about how bad that audit really is," she said. "A lot of preplanning happened behind the scenes today."
Sheegl was the third CAO to work with Katz, after Annitta Stenning and Glen Laubenstein.
Farewell from a CAO
The full text of Phil Sheegl's resignation letter:
Mayor Katz and Members of Council,
This is to advise that I am resigning as the CAO of the City of Winnipeg after nearly six years of public service.
Though it has been a trying year from many perspectives and for many public servants, especially those on the senior management team, I leave with a sense of thankfulness for their tireless efforts in serving the citizens of Winnipeg capably, conscientiously and well. Together, we have accomplished a great deal for our City - in improving public planning, infrastructure, amenities, services, and safety - and are collectively proud of:
- Completing the Disraeli Bridges Project, the largest in Winnipeg history, on-time and on-budget;
- Completing the Chief Peguis Trail extension, on-budget and one year ahead of schedule;
- Nearing completion of the consolidated new HQ for the Winnipeg Police Service;
- Completion of the first stage of the Southwest Transitway, and continued progress on Rapid and Active Transportation networks;
- Partnering in a revitalized Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District downtown;
- Provision of enhanced recreational opportunities for inner-city children and youth; and,
- Consultation and preparation of OurWinnipeg, the City's long-term plan for the future.
Despite so much negativity regarding the construction of four new fire paramedic stations, they, too, are an important accomplishment and a vital component of modern emergency services for Winnipeg families, especially in growing neighbourhoods like Sage Creek, where response times have been drastically improved. They are equally important projects in communities where antiquated stations were no longer suitable places for our firefighters to live and work.
Throughout my time as CAO, my purpose and focus has always been to approach every task in a constructive, positive way, and work to ensure the success of all our civic projects. I am glad to have had the opportunity to see so many important projects realized.
To my family, friends and colleagues who have supported me throughout these years of being in the public arena and the focus of endless media attention, I thank them for their constant encouragement.
As for my time at the City of Winnipeg, I would like to thank the Mayor and so many Councillors and staff who made my time both meaningful and productive. Winnipeg is and always has been my home, and I wish everyone the best, moving forward.
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