One of the longest-serving politicians in the City of Winnipeg's history says the quality of city councillors has declined during his decades in office because salaries have become too low to attract gifted candidates.
This Wednesday's city council meeting will be the final legislative hurrah for Old Kildonan Coun. Mike O'Shaughnessy, who has sat on city council for 30 out of the past 36 years.
Only Mynarski Coun. Harry Lazarenko, who remains hospitalized following a May aneurysm and who is also expected to retire, has served the city as long as O'Shaughnessy.
An often outspoken conservative with federal Liberal affiliations, O'Shaughnessy served as council speaker, finance chairman, and other roles during a career that saw him work with six different mayors during two stints on council, from 1974 to 1980, and then from 1986 until next month. Prior to entering politics, he covered city hall for the Winnipeg Free Press.
He also witnessed council contract from 50 members to 29 and then finally 16. But he does not believe Winnipeg has better representation now than it did when he was first elected.
"I think the average IQ has been less with every council," O'Shaughnessy said last week in an interview inside the office he'll soon vacate.
The salaries offered to councillors are part of the problem, he said, as they're better suited for low-level managers than politicians responsible for $1.4 billion worth of annual city budgets. Meanwhile, unelected managers are compensated far more handsomely. "You have department heads making up to $200,000 and EPC (executive policy committee members) making $75,000. It's kind of silly," he said.
O'Shaughnessy also contends some of today's full-time councillors have entered politics for the wrong reasons. "There are too many people who want to be a city councillor and not enough who want to do the work of a city councillor," he said, citing modest works such as the construction of community centres, arenas and basketball courts in Old Kildonan as his proudest achievements.
City-wide, he's proud of helping create The Forks and thankful he was off council when Portage Place was approved. He concedes he made a mistake when he voted against Esplanade Riel, the pedestrian bridge he now calls "the stamp of Winnipeg."
He wants this city to continue to promote business, complete an inner ring road, and help create more affordable apartments in the Exchange District for singles, young couples and seniors.
But he fears council will remain divided between ideological factions. "Let's not argue over what to do," he says, imploring council's left-leaning opposition to be less negative and more constructive in its dealings with the centre-right majority. "Let's not argue 'this is bad.' Argue 'I've got something better,' " he said.
Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz said O'Shaughnessy will be remembered as a very creative but no-nonsense public servant who knew the rules of council better than anyone else and never shied away from speaking his mind.
"He was extremely outspoken," Katz said.
The heated atmosphere of public life is partly what's leading O'Shaughnessy to retire. He has diabetes, must lose 45 kilograms, and has suffered two heart attacks over the past seven years.
"With my last one, my heart stopped. They had to put the pedals on me twice," he said. "After property committee (on Sept. 14), my chest was so heavy because I was so pissed off and so into it.
"I can't afford to care that much any more. It isn't worth dying for."
O'Shaughnessy refuses to formally endorse a successor, although he makes no secret of his affection for Old Kildonan candidate Devi Sharma, a former executive assistant.
"Who I help privately on the side is my business," he said. "Devi's son calls me grampa, so you can figure out."
O'Shaughnessy said he won't miss anything about public life. He said he expects the same sorts of people who stopped calling him when he was away from council from 1980 to 1986 to follow suit this time.
He said he "found out who my friends were in a hurry" during his darkest days on council, when he was accused of taking an envelope of money from a developer but was fully exonerated by the RCMP. A six-month investigation took place toward the end of the Bill Norrie administration.
O'Shaughnessy is not sentimental about leaving office. He said he would have skipped Wednesday's council meeting if he didn't have to introduce a minor item on the public works agenda he took over following the death of Charleswood Coun. Bill Clement in May.
"Council was my least favourite of all my meetings," he said, dismissing it as theatre. "When I spoke on things on occasion, it was quite often since I heard so much B.S. from other people.
"I wanted to make sure something was on the record that was factual."