Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Katz bogeys again

Mayor's golf-course ad campaign lands in the rough

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Golf course controversy has landed mayor Sam Katz in trouble — again.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Golf course controversy has landed mayor Sam Katz in trouble — again. Photo Store

In a perfect world, where land use was dictated solely on the basis of environmental principles, every city-owned golf course along a river would be shut down.

All golf-course land immediately alongside waterways would be re-naturalized, allowing riparian zones to return to their natural state and provide vital habitat for a variety of plants and animals.

Strips of land farther away from the rivers would become public parks, connected to other city green spaces via bike-and-pedestrian trails.

And the rest of the riverfront golf-course land -- the majority of the greens -- would be converted into high-density housing, with a mix of condominiums and apartments of various sizes to serve Winnipeggers of all ages and income brackets.

Golf courses, in the minds of some Winnipeggers, are not actual green spaces. They are not parks, where anyone can walk at almost any time. They are not natural areas, given the virtual monoculture of carefully manicured grass.

And in a city plagued by decades of unsustainable city planning, they certainly do not represent a fantastic use of land. In a sense, golf courses are a lot like surface-parking lots: They are the worst possible form of land use when it comes to promoting urban density.

Yet there are Winnipeggers who wrap themselves in an environmental flag and claim golf courses serve the same role as actual parks, which they do not.

This sentiment, for the most part, is entirely well-intentioned. Many residents of this city love their open spaces and are rightfully suspicious of any effort to build them up. But there are also Winnipeggers who simply succumb to NIMBY sentiment: They believe they have a God-given right to the same view out their front window for their entire lives. The reality is, no municipality on the planet offers such a protection against development.

At the very same time, no sane individual would actually argue in favour of shutting down all city-owned, riverfront golf courses. One or two could go perhaps, but without consulting golfers in a meaningful way, it would be rash for the city to get out of the golf business altogether.

The point is, if the City of Winnipeg was truly interested in getting into a debate about the best possible use of golf-course land -- or the financial management of all of its golf courses -- it could have asked its own planners and communications staff to run public awareness or engagement campaigns. City staff, maligned as they are in some quarters, actually have a great deal of experience talking to Winnipeggers.

What the city saw this week, however, was a group of politicians suffering from an extreme and comical form of hubris: Mayor Sam Katz and Deputy Mayor Russ Wyatt apparently believed they had the marketing expertise to mount a city-wide public-relations campaign in favour of their latest golf-course plan.

What Katz and Wyatt want to do is sell off a single golf course, John Blumberg, and lease four others to an Ontario operator. Given that all city-owned golf courses were on the potential block two years ago, this is a timid effort that does little to address the underlying intention to get out of the golf business. It also does nothing to address the land-use concerns surrounding riverfront golf courses.

It certainly does not please some of the developers who spent vast sums of money on golf-course development proposals that were completely shunted aside after Katz, Wyatt and the rest of council's executive policy committee cowered in the wake of a union-driven public-relations campaign against the sale of city-owned golf courses.

In response to that less-than-honest campaign, led by the city's largest union, Winnipeg's mayor and deputy mayor cooked up an even more misleading public relations effort.

The $90,000 "Responsible Winnipeg" campaign that erupted like a boil last week included an effort to convince Winnipeggers to lobby councillors to agree to a watered-down golf-course plan that may have passed anyway. There are so many hypocrisies involved in that effort, it is painful to address them all.

For starters, fighting misleading union propaganda with misleading city propaganda does not place a politician on solid moral ground. Neither does using public money to do so -- and then arguing, as Wyatt did on Friday, unions get all their money from the city, anyway.

It is also infuriating to fund a crackpot print, radio, bus and web campaign by dipping into a pot of money created this year to create better public policy.

The intent behind that new fund was to replace some of the policy advisers who were eliminated at the city over the past seven years. The decision to get rid of these big-brained geeks led to situations where it looked like the mayor and council had no idea what the city's public service was doing -- and vice versa.

But instead of using this new money to provide better policy oversight, Wyatt and Katz employed it to launch a campaign so amateurish in its execution it actually turned some Winnipeggers and councillors who might have been receptive to the city's golf-course plan into opponents.

Again, what the city proposed to do was sell off one golf course and lease four others, based on the simple belief golf should not be a core city service. This is not an extreme proposal, but it's now doomed to at least partial failure, thanks entirely to Wyatt and Katz's desire to play make-believe Mad Men.

The Blumberg sale is already dead, as it requires 11 votes on a 16-member council. An unofficial straw poll of councillors suggests six will vote against the sale, while several others are leaning against it.

The lease of the four other courses -- Kildonan Park, Crescent Park, Harbour View and Windsor Park -- also needs a two-thirds majority to pass and may yet succeed. This is in spite of the city effort to portray Golf Services as a money-loser, even as the special operating agency transfers cash to the city every year.

St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel, the former deputy mayor and finance chairman, was the first councillor to declare the golf analysis faulty in 2011. He was quiet last week and declined to state how he intended to vote. Only serious horse-trading could bring him to the table now.

But it doesn't really matter what city council decides to do with the current golf-course plan, which is a fairly minor issue. What really matters is, it does not appear this mayor has any interest in engaging the public in a genuine debate of any form about policy.

Instead, Katz has left that job to his much more quixotic deputy mayor, who only recently scared the frak out of Winnipeggers by proposing, only partly tongue-in-cheek, to eliminate all funding to Assiniboine Park, museums, rapid transit, the arts and other programs.

On Saturday, the Free Press editorial board said Katz is unable to lead. Unwilling is far more like it.

 

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2013 A1

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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 appears every second Wednesday on Citytv’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler.

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
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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