Winnipeg's water and waste department will soon be a thing of the past -- city council has approved a complex and controversial plan to create a stand-alone water and sewer utility.

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This article was published 22/7/2009 (4521 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Members of the public fill the gallery in council chambers as debate rages on Wednesday.

MIKE.APORIUS@FREEPRESS.MB.CA

Members of the public fill the gallery in council chambers as debate rages on Wednesday.

Winnipeg's water and waste department will soon be a thing of the past -- city council has approved a complex and controversial plan to create a stand-alone water and sewer utility.

Nine hours into a gruelling 12-hour council meeting -- the final gathering of Winnipeg's politicians before they take a six-week summer break -- a divided and cranky city council voted 10-6 Wednesday to create what's officially known as a municipal corporate utility, an arm's-length agency that will assume responsibility for sewage and water treatment, garbage and recycling collection, and possibly develop a green-energy subsidiary.

The extended nature of the meeting was partly due to the presence of a large number of significant pieces of legislation, including the Parker land swap, a complex plan with massive transportation and developmental implications for southwest Winnipeg.

But most of the extra-long running time was due to an early-morning decision to allow 23 public delegations to speak to council about the utility proposal, instead of the usual four.

The result was almost a replay of last week's executive policy committee, which saw a parade of social activists and union leaders decry the utility because they fear it will result in a loss of political control over essential city services, the promotion of urban sprawl, or even the privatization of city utility assets.

The latter fear stems from the utility's intention to form some sort of partnership with a private engineering and construction consortium to complete about $1 billion of sewage-plant upgrades and combined sewer replacements. That led Mayor Sam Katz and his council allies to repeatedly stress the privatization of utility assets is forbidden by provincial legislation.

"The sky is not red, the Earth is not flat, and we're not privatizing anything," said an exasperated Mayor Sam Katz shortly before the 6:25 p.m. utility vote, which saw Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt break ranks with the rest of EPC and vote alongside council's left-leaning opposition.

Wyatt said Winnipeggers may no longer trust a city council that passes a utility proposal he deemed unnecessary and unclear. Couns. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge), John Orlikow (River Heights) Dan Vandal (St. Boniface), Lillian Thomas (Elmwood) and Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre) recited a laundry list of complaints about the utility plan, which ended up getting altered on the floor of council by three separate amendments.

Mynarski Coun. Harry Lazarenko pushed a plan to ensure a referendum must take place before any utility assets are ever sold. His amendment was entirely symbolic, as such a move is not even possible.

Meatier amendments saw Couns. Gord Steeves (St. Vital) and Justin Swandel (St. Norbert) add in guarantees that any changes in garbage service -- such as user fees for curbside pickup -- go before city council, along with any deals the utility strikes with potential private partners.

They also created language aimed at ensuring Winnipeg's interests will be protected if and when the utility extends services such as sewage treatment to bedroom communities around Winnipeg.

Coun. Bill Clement (Charleswood), meanwhile, authored a motion to allow council to retain control over big-budget utility expenditures, as well as the power to continue to set water and sewer rates in the short term.

The utility plan calls for the provincial Public Utilities Board to assume that duty, a move Vandal criticized as an abdication of civic responsibility.

But Katz's allies fought back, dredging up the history of Manitoba Hydro's purchase of Winnipeg Hydro, a deal that was approved by a (former mayor) Glen Murray executive policy committee that included Gerbasi, Thomas and Vandal.

The acrimonious tone of the debate persisted into the evening, as council debated other issues. Wyatt even took a veiled shot at Katz's ethics after complaining about the speed at which the Parker land swap raced through city hall.

At the end of the night, the mayor shrugged off the suggestion he might throw Wyatt out of his cabinet.

"Russ gets very emotional. As you saw, I think he lost it tonight," Katz said.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca