Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Departing Swandel's transformation is sad

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Friends, Winnipeggers, citizens, lend me your ears: I come to bury Justin Swandel as well as praise him.

After nine years as the councillor for St. Norbert, Swandel has called it quits, announcing Monday he plans to leave city hall this fall to focus on real estate and development.

"Over the past few years, I have become a certified Realtor and look forward to the new challenges of that career," Swandel said in a statement.

"When people have asked me how I like this job, I usually respond by saying that overall I love my job, but on any given day I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. It has truly been both the most rewarding and challenging experience I have had."

Swandel joined city council in 2005 after winning a byelection to replace John Angus, who stepped away from his office and effectively handed the keys to his executive assistant.

Having already worked at city hall, Swandel hit the ground running as a councillor. By the end of his short first term -- a little more than 18 months -- he established a well-deserved reputation as a bright light on city council.

The 2006 edition of Justin Swandel was energetic, enthusiastic, inquisitive, moderate and above all, helpful, on a council divided bitterly between a centre-right majority led by Mayor Sam Katz and a left-of-centre opposition minority.

As the closest thing on council to an independent, Swandel freely shared his opinions and ideas with whoever took the time to listen. It didn't hurt that he appeared to scrutinize every report to council more thoroughly than even Fort Rouge's Jenny Gerbasi did at the time.

As a result, it was no surprise to see Katz elevate Swandel to a position on executive policy committee after the 2006 election. And thus began the most dramatic change in demeanour of any member of city council -- including the mayor.

As Swandel prepares to retire, he is regarded in some circles as combative, dismissive and contemptuous of criticism, especially if that criticism is directed at the mayor, former chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl or the developers caught up in the capital-procurement scandals that have enveloped city hall.

Swandel stood alone on council in 2013 in deriding the external review of the fire-paramedic station replacement program, which concluded Sheegl provided insufficient oversight over a poorly managed project that provided a competitive advantage to Shindico Realty.

Swandel claimed the review was flawed a full month before Shindico officials spoke up to do the same. Swandel also blamed other councillors and members of the media for besmirching city hall's good name.

How did the skeptical, inquisitive Swandel of 2006 become the councillor more deeply invested in the city hall status quo than even the mayor himself is today?

I'm not going to claim any special insight into this transformation, other than to say Swandel changed gradually over time and appears to have come by his current opinions honestly.

This is a very nice way of posing a question I would not express if Swandel was running for council again: How could someone so gifted with the power of critical thought adopt such a deep disdain for criticism, the very lifeblood of democracy?

Again, I have no answer. I did not speak to Swandel on Monday. After teetering on the edge of mistrust for years, my professional relationship with the St. Norbert councillor collapsed altogether several months ago in a shouting match over a minor downtown-development story he deemed unfair, even though it had yet to appear in print.

There is no questioning Justin Swandel's intelligence, his wit or his passion for this city. I wish him nothing but the best and I commend him for announcing his electoral intentions well in advance of the October election.

What I lament is the passing of the councillor I used to know. To further appropriate Mark Antony: "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 3, 2014 0

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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