At Winnipeg city hall, it is wise to expect the unexpected.
Questionable land deals. Multimillion-dollar overruns in fire-station construction. The mayor's acquisition of a million-dollar home in Phoenix. Water parks proposed for valuable lands at The Forks. Odd and unexpected? That's just the way city hall rolls.
Even so, Coun. Justin Swandel's sudden resignation from executive policy committee last week stands out as an almost inexplicable tale.
Let's face it: If you have to serve the public as a member of city council, you want to be a member of EPC. It's the inner circle, the mayor's cabinet, the place where decisions get made. If city hall were a high school, EPC would be the cool kids' clique and council would be the place where the nerds hang out.
Why would Swandel -- a fierce loyalist of Mayor Sam Katz -- give all that up? Swandel said he could no longer work on an EPC that had become "dysfunctional, broken and divided." He was reluctant to explain his comments any further, but made it clear he could "not stay with that group."
What could have rankled Swandel, a councillor who it should be noted has a habit of being fairly easily rankled? The prevailing theory is Swandel did not appreciate how some members of EPC had turned on Katz and chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl in the face of shrill media and public criticism. There certainly was a time when EPC, a committee of councillors hand-picked by the mayor, would never have broken ranks to express public concern about the behaviour of Katz and Sheegl. That time is clearly over.
Former protection and community services committee chairwoman Paula Havixbeck, who remains on EPC but without a committee to chair, has been outspoken in her concerns about the fire-hall land swap and took out some of her frustration on Sheegl at a recent council meeting. Coun. Russ Wyatt, now the deputy mayor, led the charge for an audit of real estate transactions after proclaiming his disgust about how the city conducts its business. It's now become fashionable for councillors -- whether they sit on EPC or not -- to express doubt about the mayor and his longtime friend Sheegl. At first blush, it is not tough to have a small measure of empathy for Swandel's frustration. This is a council that has been, for some time, too easily influenced. Whether it's their willingness to genuflect in the face of the suffocating power of the mayor's office, or a propensity to wilt in the face of public opinion, this council has too many members unfamiliar with the term "intestinal fortitude."
It was tough not to be gobsmacked when council voted in September to launch an audit of real estate transactions, including the much-discussed fire hall-replacement program. Councillor after councillor stood to explain how, after weeks of critical media coverage, they were finally moved to act because of an outpouring of concern from constituents. Really? For weeks, councillors heard and read about the highly irregular path that led to a city fire hall being built on private land, but it was only after they were deluged by emails and voice mails they realized there was a problem? That's not being responsive to your constituents; that's floating with the current of public opinion.
Even if one can see things from Swandel's perspective, his resignation is still tough to swallow. Membership in EPC should not be based on a councillor's willingness to follow, without question, the path the mayor wants to take. This is not La Cosa Nostra, and members of EPC should be free to express concerns about the mayor, the CAO or anyone else who falls under the banner of local government without fear they will end up swimming with the fishes. Resigning because EPC had the temerity to break rank with the mayor or challenge the CAO is an act of petulance at odds with a politician of Swandel's expertise.
It doesn't help that Swandel made no real attempt to dismiss suggestions he was leaving EPC -- and his post as wingman to an increasingly beleaguered mayor -- to set up his own bid for the mayor's office in 2014. "I never close any doors," Swandel said when asked about his future. If he has aspirations for the mayor's office, then this resignation is nothing more than a gambit to peel the label of "Katz's closest ally" off his political resumé as the current mayor suffers under the collective weight of his scandals.
Swandel is not talking to the media right now, and may never comment further on his surprising resignation. However, municipal political observers will be watching him closely in the coming weeks to see if the new, unencumbered Swandel is genuinely interested in fixing a dysfunctional city hall, or merely positioning himself to lead it.