Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What led our beloved bug-killer to leave?

Still no clue why city entomologist left skeeter battle

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Where have you gone? After nine years, Taz Stuart has suddenly left his job with the city and no one  is saying why.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Where have you gone? After nine years, Taz Stuart has suddenly left his job with the city and no one is saying why. Photo Store

In the vast majority of North American cities, residents rarely get to know their public servants. If pressed, they might be able to name their city manager, their chief of police and possibly their head of sanitation, especially in U.S. jurisdictions where voters elect the officials. Most Canadian municipalities simply appoint.

Only in Winnipeg, a sub-Arctic city where the brief summer spawns mosquitoes, cankerworms, aphids, elm-bark beetles and all manner of other annoying insects, does a city entomologist rival the mayor in terms of public profile and quite possibly exceed all officials, including the chief of police, in terms of popularity.

This is why it is a very big deal when a guy like Taz Stuart walks out the door in the middle of a summer mosquito-control season.

For the past nine years, the affable Regina transplant with the Weird Al Yankovic locks has served as the human face of insect control, which -- like it or not -- is one of the civic functions that makes Winnipeg such a weird and wonderful place.

When long-serving City of Winnipeg officials leave their jobs under normal circumstances, Winnipeg's chief administrative officer usually sends out an email congratulating the outgoing employee in question for their many years of service and wishes them the best of luck in the future. Such missives are placed in wide distribution and usually wind up in reporters' inboxes within mere minutes of their composition.

There was no such message floating about when Stuart and the city parted ways some time last week, roughly a month after the entomologist attended his final mosquito-control press conference of his career with the City of Winnipeg.

Over the past month, reporters have made a number of inquiries about the whereabouts of the city entomologist, who is usually made available on a weekly or biweekly basis throughout the course of a summer.

Reporters have often complained of the restricted nature of their access to Stuart, whose appearances were rationed in part to allow Winnipeg's insect-control branch to function free of harassment during its busiest period -- but also to simply reduce the number of print, broadcast and Internet stories including both the words "mosquitoes" and "Winnipeg."

This July, city public relations staff even refused a Wall Street Journal request to tour the insect-control branch for a feature about Winnipeg's unique and usually successful annual battle against nuisance mosquitoes.

"In my opinion, there is no value in straying from our established practice of keeping media to 'one briefing, as and when required,' " a public relations manager wrote in an email to a trio of senior city officials and obtained by the Free Press.

"So I asked (a public relations staffer) to decline this request from the Wall Street Journal, despite its claim of a global audience of 40 million. In my view, our role is more importantly helping inform the local media who serve Winnipeggers."

This week, all-important local media have been left in the dark about the circumstances surrounding Stuart's departure.

All that is known is he was last seen on the job in July, was invisible throughout the month of August and was no longer working for the city as of Tuesday morning, when communications manager Steve West confirmed Stuart was no longer a city employee.

As a matter of policy, the city refuses to comment on personnel matters. This is why Mayor Sam Katz said virtually nothing Wednesday about the departure of one of Winnipeg's most beloved public figures.

Stuart has not responded to any attempts to elicit comment. A number of sources within the city allege his absence followed a single complaint about a voice message he left in July. One source alleged the message consisted of six words.

Given the entomologist's nine-year period of service to the city -- during which he oversaw a successful spring larviciding program, tried to minimize the use of chemicals and helped educate the public about bedbugs -- this sounds like a bizarre reason for Stuart to go.

His sudden and unexplained departure has prompted speculation he did not like working for the city or officials wanted him to go.

There was much evidence to the contrary on Wednesday.

"Taz did a great job. He maybe was more progressive than I'd ever want him to be, but I respected him," said St. James-Brooklands Coun. Scott Fielding, who sits alongside Katz on council's executive policy committee.

"Taz was fantastic," added Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck, who was kicked off EPC last year. "He was moving in a direction the city needed to go, in terms of the way he was handling mosquitoes."

There will always be mosquitoes in Winnipeg, regardless of the efforts of the city entomologist. But the constant presence of bugs in this town also ensures a high profile for any future chief bug-fighter.

Right now, that person is acting city entomologist David Wade. If he lands the gig on a permanent basis, he, too, will wind up with a massive public profile.

And if he ever walks out the door in the middle of a mosquito-control season, Winnipeggers will be justified in wanting to know why.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2013 A5

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Updated on Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 7:46 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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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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