Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wyatt the wild card

How to explain the mercurial councillor's methods?

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After a decade at city hall, Coun. Russ Wyatt deserves another nickname to go along with "the Mayor of Transcona."

Over the past couple of years, I've started calling the 42-year-old politician "Coun. Jack Sparrow," after Johnny Depp's character in the Disney pirate movies.

This is not because of any strong resemblance between Wyatt and Depp -- the latter is seven years older -- but because of the councillor's tendency to act similarly to the unpredictable pirate, who switches sides so often his loyalties and motivations are difficult to discern.

Back in 2006, Wyatt was one of Mayor Sam Katz's most outspoken critics, primarily because of a since-abandoned city plan to allow a hog-processing plant to rise on the southern fringes of Transcona.

Wyatt proceeded to earn a surprise appointment to executive policy committee after the 2006 civic election. But he soon wound up offside with the mayor again.

During the fall of 2008, Wyatt served as the chief Katz critic during the Riverside Park Management affair. Then in July 2009, the Transcona councillor questioned the mayor's ethics on the floor of council during a debate over the Parker land swap. At the same meeting, Wyatt voted against a Katz-supported plan to replace Winnipeg's water and waste department with a stand-alone utility.

When September rolled around, Katz kicked Wyatt off EPC, claiming his hand was forced when Wyatt compared city lawyers to snake and liars. In reality, Katz's hand was forced by other members of EPC, who pleaded to see him removed.

"No one has ever, will ever tell Coun. Russ Wyatt what to do or say," Katz said at the time. "You won't find a stronger ally than Coun. Wyatt... but only when he agrees with you."

That strong but capricious presence wound up back on EPC after the 2010 election. Wyatt now serves as the only member of EPC who does not chair a committee, suggesting Katz prefers to keep him in the fold but doesn't want him directing policy.

But Wyatt has transformed himself into one of Katz's most loyal lieutenants as of late. When the doomed Canalta water-park plan came to a vote this April, Wyatt was among a lonely group of three councillors who backed the project to the end.

Now, the prime object of Wyatt's attention is neither the mayor nor Premier Greg Selinger, but Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi.

Two Fridays ago, Wyatt began trying to elicit attention to a letter members of the Corydon Business Improvement Zone authored, who were extremely unhappy with ongoing efforts to develop a planning framework for the Corydon Strip. Gerbasi, they suggested, was not listening.

At first, it seemed like nothing more than classic Wyatt, trying as he often does to crack the well-read Saturday edition of the Free Press. But the following Tuesday, when he walked a motion onto a meeting of council's property committee and succeeded in stopping the Corydon plan, it was clear Coun. Jack Sparrow was back in swashbuckling business.

For starters, there's an unspoken rule at city hall that prevents councillors from wading into each other's wards. Secondly, all members of council tend to regard walk-on motions as an abuse of process. Katz has expressed a particular hatred for walk-ons, given the way they encourage voters to be cynical about city hall.

But above all, the move to swiftly kill the plan was simply weird, given the long-standing city effort to strike a balance between commercial growth on the Corydon Strip and the concerns of residents who have complained about excessive noise and hooliganism after closing time on some of the patios.

In recent years, there has been relatively little conflict between residents and businesses in the area, notwithstanding the complaints of business owners, who, of course, would love to sell more alcohol.

So what exactly was Wyatt's motivation? While insisting he has no personal beef with Gerbasi, he said the fact the entire Corydon BIZ is offside with the area councillor proves something is wrong.

"It's not just one or two businesses," Wyatt said Saturday. "These boards are typically made up of small business people. They're not unreasonable, radical, hard-to-get-along-with individuals. They're pretty down-to-earth. I just found it hard to understand how an entire board could take such a strong stance."

Wyatt then claimed Gerbasi is trying to shut down the Corydon Strip by siding with the NIMBY residents over aggrieved business owners.

"I hope she succeeds in shutting down Corydon. Downtown Transcona is open. We would love to have Little Italy there," Wyatt said.

That move may take a while. In the meantime, Katz has brokered a meeting between Gerbasi and the Corydon business owners in an effort to get the ball rolling on a new planning framework, senior city officials said.

But the question of why Wyatt set in motion this series of events -- which has now required the mayor's office to intervene in a neighbourhood planning issue -- remains unanswered.

So again, why does Russ Wyatt do what he does?

"I approach each issue as it warrants. I believe I was elected as an independent city councillor, not through a political process or an endorsement from labour or the chamber of commerce," he said.

Fair enough. But there must be more of a method to Wyatt's proverbial madness. Quite simply, he appears to have an intuitive grasp of the power of volatility.

The 48 Laws of Power, a 1998 collection of neo-Machiavellian principles assembled by author and strategist Robert Greene, offers fantastic advice to politicians, prison inmates and other people who may occasionally find the need to bend others to their will.

Law No. 17 is particularly instructive: "Keep others in suspended terror: Cultivate an air of unpredictability." This advice sounds like it was written for Russ Wyatt.

"Humans are creatures of habit with an insatiable need to see familiarity in other peoples actions. Your predictability gives them a sense of control," Greene writes.

"Turn the tables: Be deliberately unpredictable. Behaviour that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off-balance, and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves. Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize."

And taken somewhere not so extreme, this strategy can ensure you retain a seat on EPC.

Perhaps Sam Katz is familiar with Law No. 2, "Learn to use your enemies," where Greene advises thus: "Hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend, because he has more to prove."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 8, 2012 A8

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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.

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

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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