Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Respect for political process a matter of time

Coun. Russ Wyatt sees review two different ways

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It's time once again to play "I can't believe that YOU believe what you just said." It's a game you can play when politicians say improbable, inconsistent or incongruous things that strain credulity or contradict previous positions.

The issue for this week's competition is the water park and hotel proposal for The Forks. And our contestant is Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt, a staunch supporter of an Alberta hotelier's plan to erect a water park and hotel on a prime piece of city-owned land at The Forks. He voted in favour at executive policy committee, and would have voted in favor at council the next week had a motion to defer not been passed.

Councillors like Wyatt have been under the gun to explain why they were prepared to support a plan that had so few details attached to it. Most of those who were motivated to let their feelings be known, and there were a lot of them, were overwhelmingly opposed. So much so that councillors who were going to approve the plan quickly got behind a motion to defer. In politics, when the going gets tough, the tough usually vote to table the matter.

Under pressure from constituents to explain his support for the plan, there was only one thing left for Wyatt to do -- blame the media. "Unfortunately, the media had reported that we had no facts," Wyatt wrote last week to a constituent. "Indeed, the opposite was true as the public service has done due diligence on the proponents project, and with a requirement to file site plan and detailed elevations prior to the issuing of any building permits. Unfortunately this was not clearly reported or lost in the sensationalism of the issue itself, including selective quoting from reporters and news agencies in order to 'spice up' the issue." Perhaps, although most media outlets that covered the story noted the city could still back out of the deal if it didn't like what it saw from Canalta. However, many commentators noted that Winnipeg does not have a robust history of making demands on developers.

But the real I-can't-believe-he-believes-what-he-just-said moment came in a subsequent email exchange, where Wyatt was asked whether his faith in the process now was at odds with his criticism of the very same process several years ago. In 2005, Wyatt led a spirited campaign to stop a company named OlyWest from establishing a hog plant in his ward. At the time, the city and province were pushing a deal with OlyWest without consulting affected constituents or offering specific details about exactly how the plan would look or operate. OlyWest claimed it would create a modern operation that was quiet and clean and absent of stench. The citizens, Wyatt argued, had a right to know the full details of the proposal before council made its final decision. "I think this is being foisted on the residents of the city with very little public consultation or input," Wyatt said in 2005. Wyatt pushed for, and eventually won, a delay on the council vote. The deal would eventually fall apart.

Now, however, Wyatt was prepared to support a proposal without any detailed information on the basis that the process, which he assailed so effectively in 2005-06, was adequate. Could this be an inconsistency? "Have to disagree, as the comparison is as far apart as one can get," Wyatt wrote in response to a Free Press email query. "Comparing a water park where kids and families go to play to a $200-million hog plant that slaughters two million hogs a year... is like comparing day to night and night to day. I know you will disagree, but there is no comparison to the two projects and the end result."

This is where we get to assess whether Wyatt actually believes what he just said. He is correct when he notes that an indoor water park has very little in common with an abattoir. However, the nature of the project is not the issue. This is about a process that seeks political approval for developments prior to any meaningful consultation with the affected parties. Like OlyWest, Canalta has not been required to provide anything more than the bare minimum of details about its development. And like OlyWest, there has been no viable consultation with affected parties such as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights or The Forks market and park. The decision to delay the vote is, in large part, to ensure both of those organizations get a say in the final decision.

In fact, an experienced elected official such as Wyatt should know that the city cannot create one process for water parks and another for slaughtering plants. Surely, a single process, applied fairly and evenly to all development proposals, is the best approach.

So, do we believe Wyatt actually believes what he said? Perhaps. But accepting he does believe all that muddled rationalization means that in the years since 2005, he has dramatically changed his world view on how the city should do business. And that's hard to believe. Isn't it?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2012 A4

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