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Katz choosing to keep his enemies at a distance

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The executive policy committee Katz announced Monday effectively ends the mayor's three-year experiment with trying to create a balance of perspectives and ideologies on council's most powerful committee.

BORIS MINKEVICH / FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

The executive policy committee Katz announced Monday effectively ends the mayor's three-year experiment with trying to create a balance of perspectives and ideologies on council's most powerful committee.

For what may just be the last 12 months of his time as Winnipeg's mayor, Sam Katz has decided to keep his friends on city council closer than his enemies.

The executive policy committee Katz announced Monday effectively ends the mayor's three-year experiment with trying to create a balance of perspectives and ideologies on council's most powerful committee.

In 2010, after winning his third mayoral race, Katz surprised observers by appointing St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal to EPC. Once an ally of former mayor Glen Murray and a man with ties to the provincial NDP, Vandal ran for mayor against Katz in 2004 and lost.

The addition of Vandal to EPC was a big departure for Katz, who up until then stocked his cabinet with councillors who were either small-c conservatives or politicians willing to back the mayor, no matter what.

During Katz's first two terms in office, disagreements among EPC members largely remained behind closed doors, as all members of the committee chose to present a united front to both city council and the public.

There are pros and cons to this approach.

On the plus side, Katz rarely lost a vote at council during his first two terms in office and seemed to have no trouble implementing his agenda.

On the downside, a centre-right Katz-led council majority often fought with a left-of-centre council minority, which behaved like an opposition party. Rhetoric at city council meetings tended to be vicious, as de facto party politics took over city hall.

Katz's decision to bring Vandal into the fold marked an effort by the mayor to be more inclusive. This was not just symbolic, but a good tactical manoeuvre, as Vandal's short question period missives often had the mayor in knots.

But when Katz looks back at the wreckage of the last 18 months, he might ask himself why he ever bothered to attempt a big-tent EPC.

The death of the water-park proposal in the spring of 2012 amounted to an EPC mutiny. Months later, the firestorm over the fire-paramedic-station construction scandal left Katz practically begging his allies to allow his friend and confidante Phil Sheegl to keep his job as the city's chief administrative officer.

St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel quit EPC that fall, in the midst of the furor, declaring the committee to be dysfunctional.

Now, Swandel is back on EPC -- with his old deputy mayor title, to boot -- to help Katz implement whatever is left of his agenda during what may be the final year on council for both politicians.

"My motivation is about getting some stability in this city," Swandel told reporters last week, when he was first asked by reporters about what was then just a potential return to executive policy committee.

Swandel repeated the "stability" mantra Monday, when Katz reappointed him to EPC, along with St. Charles Coun. Grant Nordman, who has tended to vote alongside Katz.

As a member of EPC, Swandel didn't see eye to eye with Vandal on the water-park file, clashed frequently with Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt on many issues and also had ideological differences with St. James-Brooklands Coun. Scott Fielding, who quit EPC days before Vandal.

By returning to EPC, Swandel has made it clear he wants to return to a time when Sam Katz had his way.

"I harken back to the days when he had Bill Clement, Mike O'Shaugnnessy, Brenda Leipsic and even Gord (Steeves)," he said last week, referring to Katz's second term. "When we were that EPC, it was a totally different place. We always acted in the best interest of the city before we looked after our own interests. We've gone away from that a great deal."

By reappointing Swandel, Katz has signalled he has had enough with accommodating other perspectives on EPC, even though NDP-affiliated St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes and the Liberal-affiliated Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan remain.

Swandel also was the only member of council to trash the scathing audit of the fire-paramedic construction program and even walked out of a council debate about calling in external lawyers to review the document.

Katz clearly isn't concerned with the public outcry over that audit, which demonstrated severe mismanagement and favouritism in awarding contracts. If so, why reinstate Swandel and make him deputy mayor again?

Perhaps Katz doesn't care what the public thinks. If he's not going to run again, he doesn't have to even pretend to pander to public opinion. And if he does run, it won't be easy for him to win.

Either way, Monday's EPC shuffle was probably the final one Katz will ever make. "Stability" only needs to last until October.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 5, 2013 0

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