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Opinion

Russ Wyatt proves to be a potent force even from the sidelines of city council

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/5/2015 (1889 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Sam Katz led this city, Russ Wyatt bounced in and out of the mayor’s favour so often, it’s tough to recall when he was and wasn’t a member of executive policy committee.

When the colourful Transcona councillor sat on EPC, he had the power and influence to drive the former mayor nuts. On the other hand, when Wyatt sat as a member of council’s unofficial opposition, he had the time and energy to drive the former mayor nuts.

A grinning Russ Wyatt poses on a Princess Street bike lane Wednesday afternoon.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A grinning Russ Wyatt poses on a Princess Street bike lane Wednesday afternoon.

The lesson Katz appeared to learn was he could not live without Russ Wyatt, whose political smarts are exceeded only by his aptitude for making mischief. The former mayor realized Wyatt was a force that needed to be managed in some manner, which usually meant giving him some form of responsibility.

Now, Winnipeg’s new mayor is beginning to see what it’s like to contend with the Loki-like elected representative for Winnipeg’s easternmost ward.

Elected on a promise to do things differently, Brian Bowman chose not to appoint Wyatt to EPC, leaving council’s second-longest-serving elected official on the outside. Six months later, Bowman is getting a glimpse of what Wyatt can do when he’s wandering in the political wilderness.

On Monday, the Transcona councillor met with Jason Fuith, Bowman’s chief of staff, to raise concerns about the proposed conversion of some streets in his ward into the commuter-cycling routes known as greenways. During that meeting, Wyatt didn’t raise any opposition to new protected bike lanes planned for downtown Winnipeg.

The previous week, however, Wyatt penned a letter to downtown businesses, warning them they could lose access to on-street parking if council approves a new pedestrian-and-cycling strategy that calls for the construction of as many as 13 protected bike lanes over the next 20 years.

As a result of that letter, some downtown business owners contacted the mayor’s office to express concerns about insufficient public consultation about Winnipeg’s bike-and-pedestrian strategy.

And as a result of those concerns, the mayor and EPC voted Wednesday to hold off on approving the bike-and-pedestrian strategy for at least a month, pending a review of what the city has and has not done to consult the public.

Wyatt and several business owners attended the EPC meeting but didn’t speak against the plan. Nonetheless, EPC went along with the delay.

For a mayor who espouses progressive ideals, this could be seen as a setback. Bowman, however, elected to be magnanimous and portray Wyatt’s successful manoeuvre as falling in line with his own campaign promise to better engage the electorate.

"I want to let them know we’re listening," Bowman said following the vote. "If it takes an extra month to look for the engagement... I don’t see that as a problem."

It’s clear Wyatt was able to push EPC even though he no longer sits at the committee table. Bowman only grudgingly acknowledged what Wyatt was able to accomplish.

"Every member of council is going to weigh in in their own unique way," said the mayor, who would not bite on the suggestion Wyatt is trying to throw his weight around. "No. I think he’s doing his job, as all councillors are doing their job. We want to see this level of debate on important issues."

For his part, Wyatt denies his actions had anything to do with any desire he may have to reclaim an EPC seat or any other future political aspirations.

"This is not about me," said Wyatt, who argued commuter-cycling lobby groups have an inside track at city hall, at the expense of city residents, businesses and city councillors.

As evidence, he presented an email illustrating Bike Winnipeg was aware of the details of the pedestrian-and-cycling strategy in February, three months before it was made public.

"When well-intentioned special-interest groups have more information and input into public policy development than the elected officials, this does not give confidence that we are being more inclusive as a council," said Wyatt, poking at a key Bowman priority.

Is Wyatt genuine in his concerns about the city’s cycling-infrastructure plans? Probably, but that’s a secondary issue.

The councillor’s ability to push the mayor from the sidelines is what matters.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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History

Updated on Thursday, May 14, 2015 at 6:33 AM CDT: Adds link

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