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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Katz before the storm

Our mayor is enjoying a relatively peaceful summer -- but that's soon going to change

Posted: 08/25/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0


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A s summer draws to a close, the City of Winnipeg appears to be an island of political calm amid the maelstroms heaving about the other two levels of government.

In Ottawa, Stephen Harper's Conservatives have decided to prorogue parliament once again in an effort to ride out the Senate travel-expenses scandal. While this Hail Mary of a move enjoyed some popular support when it appeared the Bloc Quebecois could have taken part in a coalition government, there is little public sympathy for the Tories this time around.

On Broadway, Greg Selinger's NDP continues to bounce from one moronic mini-scandal to another, the latest idiocies involving Dave Gaudreau's inexplicable attempt at an apparent outing and Eric Robinson's amazing failure to comprehend that anything you put in writing can and will be made public, eventually.

Yet in Winnipeg, where a six-week summer break allows elected officials to avoid the spotlight if they so chose, Mayor Sam Katz has enjoyed a reprieve from what has been a relatively disastrous term of his own.

Immensely powerful during his first two terms in office, from 2004 to 2010, Winnipeg's mayor has in effect lost control of council over the past 15 months. He remains the city's mayor but is no longer able to count on shepherding any initiative he'd like through city council.

The death of the final water-park proposal in 2012 proved Katz no longer possessed an unlimited amount of influence on council or among an electorate that has grown both weary of piecemeal planning and skeptical of city property and development processes.


The departures of Couns. Justin Swandel (St. Norbert) and Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo) from executive policy committee further diluted Katz's influence, requiring the mayor to ally himself more closely with the man who is now his deputy mayor, Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt.

Wyatt, who appears to have a much greater stomach for controversy, is now the public official most likely to quarterback difficult pieces of legislation or float potentially unpopular ideas.

It was Wyatt who wore the decision to spend $90,000 in public money on an attempt to lobby the public to support the city's golf-course plan. In Regina right now, a similar city effort to spend $340,000 in public funds to convince voters to support a public-private waste-water partnership has Mayor Michael Fougere in hot water.

While some Winnipeggers will remember Katz approved this city's "Responsible Winnipeg" campaign, it was Wyatt who served as the public face. Not coincidentally, it was also Wyatt who proposed radical city cuts to pay for infrastructure upgrades this spring and is now floating the notion of trying to rein in police and fire-paramedic costs.

The latter move in particular would amount to political suicide for a sitting mayor, even though the rise in spending on emergency services in Winnipeg truly is not sustainable.

Hence Mayor Sam Katz's decision to sit back and stay out of whatever skirmishes the pit bull Wyatt may start with the city's unions or prolong with its reluctant benefactor, the labour-friendly Selinger government.

Quiet time, however, is about to end for this mayor, as this fall does not promise to be a pleasant one for anyone at city hall.

At some point in the coming weeks, City Auditor Brian Whiteside is expected to hand over a completed version of the fire-paramedic construction program review undertaken by Ernst & Young, the consulting firm handed the task of conducting an autopsy on the corpse of the three-for-one land swap and other aspects of the fire-paramedic scandal. That review was originally slated to be complete in May and is now expected no sooner than September.

When the review is out of way, Ernst & Young must also complete a broader audit of major city real-estate transactions, originally slated to be finished in July. Both the review and audit will examine city processes and whether they were followed, which should be greatly concerning to a mayor who has championed the elimination of red tape and speeding up the rate at which events move at city hall.

If that was too subtle, allow me to spell it out: Winnipeg's mayor, an avowed fan of cutting through bureaucracy, is about to find out whether Winnipeg's public service sliced a little too quickly and enthusiastically under his watch.

The mayor is in a lose-lose situation when it comes to the review in particular. If the final report takes no issue with the way four new fire-paramedic stations were built, the public may conclude the entire review was a whitewash.

But if the review determines city processes were circumvented, senior officials -- including chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl, the mayor's close friend and trusted ally -- would be forced to accept responsibility. Some could lose their jobs.

The longer this drags out, the closer the conclusions of the fire-paramedic construction review and the real-estate audit will come to the October 2014 civic election, now barely 14 months away.

No mayor wants to hand easy ammunition to prospective rivals. That said, it is not certain whether any legitimate rival will step up to run against Sam Katz next year -- or even whether Katz himself will seek a fourth term.

If Katz does not wish to run again, the honourable move for the mayor would be to announce his intention early. Such a declaration would serve Winnipeg well by allowing the broadest range of candidates to consider a run in 2014. It would, in short, be the statesmanlike thing for Katz to do.

But the correct political move is for the mayor to remain silent, regardless of whether he has made up his mind. Given how little control he has over council right now, chaos could emerge if the mayor effectively makes himself a lame duck far too early.

The sands have already shifted at city hall. The question is whether movement of a more tectonic variety is coming this fall.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2013 A8

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