Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Blame ad by mayor, deputy for jeopardizing money-saver

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A week of silliness and incompetence has a plan to lease or sell money-losing municipal golf courses teetering on the brink of defeat. Funny, but it didn't have to happen that way.

The city has discussed for many years the divestiture of its golf courses. Although some (Kildonan and John Blumberg) are profitable, most of the others barely break even or lose money. More importantly, thanks to accounting rules that require the city to record depreciation and payments in lieu of property taxes as expenses, the agency operating city courses generates a net liability. Leasing or selling the courses wouldn't eliminate that liability, but it certainly reduces it, which is ultimately good for the city's bottom line.

If the adults on council were allowed to sit down and debate the pros and cons of leasing or selling golf courses, all of Winnipeg might benefit. Lamentably, that opportunity was sacrificed on the altar of incompetence and expediency. The final vote on this plan will be held at council next week, and it remains unclear whether there will be enough support to give it a green light.

How did the golf-course debate get so mucked up? Rather than relying on the strengths of their argument, Mayor Sam Katz and deputy mayor Russ Wyatt turned this debate into yet another performance of city hall's theatre of the absurd.

The silliness began when Katz and other proponents objected to advertisements from CUPE 500, the city's largest union, urging citizens to lobby council to keep the golf courses public. CUPE wants to protect unionized jobs, something it can hardly be faulted for.

In response, Katz and Wyatt unleashed a campaign of their own called "Responsible Winnipeg," urging citizens to lobby councillors to sell or lease the golf courses. The campaign cost $90,000 in public funds.

The problem is that when it was first launched, Responsible Winnipeg did not identify itself as a city effort. In fact, it was only after complaints that changes were made to identify it as a city campaign. That created a second problem: Council never approved the $90,000. In fact, councillors did not know about the campaign until it was up and running.

This was a deliberate attempt to deceive Winnipeggers into influencing parts of council. Who is ultimately responsible for this childish, disingenuous bid to undermine opponents and deceive citizens?

When you sort through the conflicting assertions and butt-covering rationalizations, the best version of the truth seems to be thus: Katz approved, in general, the idea of a campaign to counter the CUPE ads. However, Katz insists he did not approve the content or tone of the campaign. That was Wyatt's responsibility. Or it's the bag he's been left holding.

Either way, it doesn't explain why the mayor and deputy mayor would have proceeded with such a poorly conceived, unapproved counter-advertising campaign in the first place.

The mayor is sensitive about efforts to stir up public opposition to council plans. Katz has seen several of his initiatives die on the vine after council was battered by calls and emails.

The unflattering reality is that council is notoriously easy to influence, with councillors changing their positions with the currents flowing through their email inboxes. In this instance, however, there is little evidence to suggest the CUPE campaign was generating public outrage. That is not to say there isn't some concern, only that golf-course privatization isn't destined to be a spark for grassroots protest.

Call it a lack of maturity, or perhaps the absence of delayed gratification. Either way, it seemed quite possible Katz could have won this vote and the public relations battle by focusing on the logic of his argument. Instead, he and Wyatt, the creative director of Responsible Winnipeg, have made the awkward and underhanded campaign to bully councillors into the story of the moment. That is a travesty.

The fate of the golf courses now hangs in the balance. Katz was able to get a compromise at executive policy committee Wednesday to divide the privatization plan into two parts: One would involve the sale of the John Blumberg course; the second deals with the lease of four other courses.

The big vote will come Wednesday when council meets. For now, there appears to be a shortage of councillors to support both parts of the plan. That makes the next week important for both proponents and opponents.

There is little doubt that over the next week, citizens will make themselves heard. Unfortunately, it appears they won't be talking about golf courses. Instead, they will be filling councillors' heads with howls about a deceitful and wasteful advertising campaign. A campaign that is still up and running despite clear evidence that it represents an abuse of power.

Fortunately, if this scuttles the plan to privatize golf courses, we'll all know where to lay the blame.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 23, 2013 A8

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