Although it has been said that everyone loves a circus, it seems nobody loves a circus more than Winnipeg city council.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/7/2015 (2099 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Although it has been said that everyone loves a circus, it seems nobody loves a circus more than Winnipeg city council.

For most of the last month, Winnipeggers have been treated to a series of emotional outbursts, hyperbolic allegations and melodramatic performance art courtesy of Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt, council's own ringmaster of mayhem.

An angry Russ Wyatt tapes his 20 rejected amendments to the pedestrian-and-cycling strategy on Mayor Brian Bowman's door Wednesday.

KRISTIN ANNABLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

An angry Russ Wyatt tapes his 20 rejected amendments to the pedestrian-and-cycling strategy on Mayor Brian Bowman's door Wednesday.

Unhappy council would not waive its rules to debate a glut of amendments to a new 20-year, $334-million active transportation cycling and pedestrian strategy -- some of which would have essentially gutted the plan -- Wyatt stormed out of last week's council meeting and began taping copies of his amendments to the door of Mayor Brian Bowman's office. He scrawled the words "Democracy Denied" on each sheet.

Wyatt got a lot of attention for this stunt, but did he make his point?

To be honest, it was hard to figure out exactly what Wyatt and four other councillors who joined him in a bid to derail the cycling and pedestrian strategy wanted to accomplish. The five -- Wyatt, Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan), Ross Eadie (Mynarski), Jason Schreyer (Elmwood-East Kildonan) and Shawn Dobson (St. Charles) -- obviously didn't like the specifics of the strategy, or the cost. But beyond that, it was hard to find a unified message.

That could be because each of the five councillors appeared to be pursuing different agendas. There were some broad concerns, but when it came right down to it, each had a series of ward-specific bones to pick.

Wyatt was the most opposed to any significant money being spent on cycling and pedestrian paths. Wyatt is, in this regard, a true municipal traditionalist, preferring roads to dedicated bike lanes or pedestrian pathways. Unfortunately, Wyatt's campaign against the plan was, as is his style, pretty confused.

For example, Wyatt appeared before a city committee in May to argue dedicated bicycle lanes were bad for downtown businesses. He made this argument despite the fact Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a lobby group representing downtown businesses, had already spoken in favour of the plan.

Wyatt continues to tell anyone who will listen he actually supports dedicated active transportation, but his actions betray that notion. Wyatt tried to grind council to a halt with a glut of amendments -- a pretty clear bid to derail the entire strategy. One of Wyatt's amendments would have cut the funding for the strategy by more than half.

But what of the other councillors? When it was clear council would not entertain the amendments, the united front evaporated. Wyatt was not present for the vote, and Schreyer did not oppose. Browaty, Eadie and Dobson voted against the plan.

Browaty said in an email he never actually opposed active transportation. Instead, Browaty said, he only wanted some changes to the specific paths in his ward, not to kill the strategy.

Browaty's broader concern was efforts through the spring and early summer to get these changes approved were ignored by councillors aggressively sponsoring the bike and pedestrian strategy. "I believe it's fair to say we were all angry at the lack of input and consideration we were being given on the plan and that led to Coun. Wyatt adding some severe additional amendments including arbitrary dollar and percentage cuts to (active transportation) overall," Browaty wrote. "I preferred getting additional input and revisions to the plan from all councillors."

After all the bluster, the anger and a colourful act of protest by Wyatt that would have made Martin Luther proud, active transportation survived. Unfortunately, the scars from this debate run deep.

Following Wyatt's stunt, Bowman went on the attack.

"These types of antics, they're at worst bullying tactics and at best they're unbecoming of an elected member of Winnipeg city council that is here to represent the citizens," Bowman said.

The mistake the mayor made here is not to think the worst of Wyatt, it was to say it out loud. The mayor in particular must always focus on the long-term welfare of council whenever he tussles with a councillor, something Bowman failed to do in this instance.

Bowman needs to mend some fences and build some bridges with dissident councillors -- some of whom have threatened to work actively against anything the mayor tries to get through council. The seeds of dysfunction have been sown throughout this debate, and the mayor needs to ensure it doesn't grow into greater dysfunction.

When he was elected, Bowman promised a new era of open, functional government. However, the reality is that a functional local government is founded on the relationships the mayor has with councillors.

Bowman, once again, is demonstrating he has not been a quick study of the internal politics of city hall. Some councillors, such as Wyatt, may be impossible to reason with; Wyatt is a political force unto his own on council, and typically expects to get his way, one way or the other.

Other councillors, however, are not as inflexible. They want to be part of what's going on. They want to win some of their fights, not all of them. They want a relationship with the mayor.

An effective mayor can build support for an important initiative such as active transportation with a minimal amount of antics. Having five members of council using ward allowances to purchase radio ads disparaging a major city initiative is, even if they fail, a black mark on the mayor's political resumé.

We are fast approaching the mayor's first-year anniversary. That's more than enough time to learn the vagaries of internal city hall politics.

All Winnipeggers will appreciate seeing Bowman begin his second year in office with a commitment to managing council politics to maximize co-operation, and minimize the melodramatic abuse of office supplies.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

   Read full biography
   Sign up for Dan Lett’s email newsletter, Not for Attribution