Mayor Sam Katz's most loyal and trusted ally has quit city council's most powerful committee because he could no longer work in an environment he describes as "dysfunctional, broken and divided."
St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel has left council's executive policy committee as part of a shuffle conducted in the midst of continuing tensions over the fire-paramedic station replacement program.
On Thursday morning, Katz announced an EPC shuffle that saw Swandel depart after six years, Point Douglas Coun. Mike Pagtakhan return after a two-year absence and new duties get assigned to Couns. Russ Wyatt (Transcona), Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands) and Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo).
Minutes after the announcement, Swandel told reporters EPC was weakened by the 2011 departure of former St. Vital councillor Gord Steeves and said he wasn't comfortable working with remaining members who lacked experience, in his view.
"(Katz) wanted me to stay and I told him I can't stay with that group," said Swandel, adding he did not agree with the conduct of some EPC members amid escalating tensions on the committee.
While Swandel declined to address specifics, other council members point to Wyatt's call for the resignation of chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl, as well as Havixbeck's public grilling of the CAO over cost overruns for the fire-paramedic Station No. 11.
"Obviously, Justin contributed a lot, but there were some relationships that were challenged, to say the least," Fielding said.
"It became pretty obvious Justin couldn't work with the group."
Swandel called his decision to quit a "personal dilemma" and he plans to take a step back and focus on the needs of his ward residents. Wyatt will take over the deputy mayor title and both the finance and alternate-service-delivery portfolios from Fielding.
Wyatt, who was kicked off EPC in 2009 before rejoining in 2011, said he knows what it's like to leave the committee, and he wished Swandel well.
Wyatt said he stands by comments he made in October about Sheegl's performance. But he said he's more focused on the task of completing the city's 2013 budgets in his new role as finance chairman.
Wyatt previously had no committee duties. His promotion gives city council another outspoken deputy mayor, Katz said.
"I think it's important to have a deputy mayor who will speak their mind and tell you exactly what they feel," said the mayor, who praised Swandel for his six years of service.
Katz said it was difficult to decide whether to replace Swandel with a rookie or a veteran before he offered Pagtakhan a third chance to sit on EPC.
"I didn't accept it right away. I wanted to give it some thought and see if it was the right fit," said Pagtakhan, who will chair council's downtown, riverbank and heritage committee.
Fielding, meanwhile, will chair council's protection and community services committee, which up until this week was Havixbeck's responsibility. "I'm really interested in taking on a leadership role with the new police board," Fielding said.
Havixbeck will no longer chair a committee but said she's happy to remain on EPC. "There's access to information and the opportunity to shape policy for Winnipeg," she said, adding she will continue to keep an eye on the fire-paramedic station file.
Katz denied Havixbeck was demoted. "There seems to be one member who doesn't have a chairmanship and this time it just happens to be Paula," he said.
The shuffle has implications for the 2014 mayoral election, as Swandel, Fielding, Wyatt and Havixbeck have all suggested at one time or another they may run for mayor if Katz does not seek a fourth term in office.
"I never close any doors and I love this city," Swandel said on Thursday.
The changes to EPC will become official at council's annual organizational meeting, slated for Wednesday.
EPC shuffle 2012
Changes to city council's executive policy committee:
Coun. Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas): The inner-city councillor returns to EPC as chair of council's downtown, riverbank and heritage committee. Pagtakhan previously served on EPC from 2004 to 2006 and again from 2008 to 2010.
Coun. Justin Swandel (St. Norbert): After six years on EPC, Swandel leaves to focus on constituency work. Since 2010, Swandel served as deputy mayor and downtown chair.
Coun. Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo): The rookie councillor is stripped of her committee responsibilities but holds on to her EPC seat.
Coun. Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands): The former finance chair takes over from Havixbeck as chair of council's protection and community services committee.
Coun. Russ Wyatt (Transcona): Wyatt assumes the role of deputy mayor and also takes over the finance portfolio and alternate service delivery chair from Fielding.
Sam Katz (mayor): Remains chair of executive policy committee.
Coun. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan): Remains chair of council's property and development committee.
Coun. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface) Remains chair of council's public works committee.