September 24, 2018

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Wyatt quiet, as city hall deals with fallout from sex-assault charges

In the wake of being charged with sexual assault, longtime Winnipeg city Coun. Russ Wyatt remains mum on his political future -- even as the voices calling for his resignation grow louder.

The Transcona representative has not responded to multiple requests for comment on whether he will resign from city council, and it remains unclear if he’s still considering standing in the civic election in October.

At the time of his arrest earlier this week, Wyatt, 48, was publicly mulling a bid for mayor.

While it remains to be seen if he’ll show up for work at the next council meeting July 19, the fact a suspension wasn’t automatically triggered when he was charged with a sexual offence is concerning, according to a University of Manitoba ethics professor.

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In the wake of being charged with sexual assault, longtime Winnipeg city Coun. Russ Wyatt remains mum on his political future — even as the voices calling for his resignation grow louder.

The Transcona representative has not responded to multiple requests for comment on whether he will resign from city council, and it remains unclear if he’s still considering standing in the civic election in October.

Coun. Russ Wyatt back in the council chamber at City Hall in Winnipeg on Thursday, May 24, 2018.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Coun. Russ Wyatt back in the council chamber at City Hall in Winnipeg on Thursday, May 24, 2018.

At the time of his arrest earlier this week, Wyatt, 48, was publicly mulling a bid for mayor.

While it remains to be seen if he’ll show up for work at the next council meeting July 19, the fact a suspension wasn’t automatically triggered when he was charged with a sexual offence is concerning, according to a University of Manitoba ethics professor.

Arthur Schafer, the founding director of U of M’s Centre of Professional and Applied Ethics, said he was shocked to learn the City of Winnipeg has no regulations in place to deal with such a situation.

"I think once the public has become aware that a councillor has been charged with a violent criminal assault, and there doesn’t appear to be any way to suspend them from council until after their conviction, there might well be a demand for a change in the rules," Schafer said Thursday.

"If he were honourable, he would resign from his position, because this brings the public service into disrepute. Suppose a member of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (football team) was charged with rape? Surely that player would be suspended from the team until the charges were resolved."

Wyatt, who has represented the Transcona ward since 2002, was arrested Tuesday night and charged with sexual assault — hours after Winnipeg Police Service sex crimes investigators received lab results connected to an alleged incident in January.

He was released on a promise to appear, although police won’t say when the city hall veteran is due in court. If convicted, he could face a maximum of 10 years in prison.

According to the City of Winnipeg charter, it appears the only way the current situation will lead to Wyatt being removed from council is if he's convicted of sexual assault, or any other charge that carries a possible prison sentence of five or more years.

Coun. Cindy Gilroy (Daniel McIntyre) said she wasn’t sure how she would feel seeing Wyatt back at city hall with such a charge hanging over his head. Nonetheless, she made clear her first priority would be ensuring anyone working with him felt comfortable and safe.

"I don’t know if I would be comfortable. To be honest, I would have to think about that. These are very serious charges. There are many women who are greatly affected by violence and sexual violence, and we have to make sure we’re taking these things seriously," Gilroy said.

She agreed the situation raises questions about whether new rules need to be put in place at city hall.

"I’m sure those are discussions that we’ll be having. I think we’re all pretty shocked by this," Gilroy said.

Sherri Walsh, the city’s integrity commissioner, declined comment Thursday, when asked if she’d received any workplace complaints about Wyatt.

Should Wyatt choose to not seek re-election, or choose to run for mayor, the Transcona ward will see a fresh face in office for the first time in more than 15 years. There are currently two candidates registered for the ward in the next municipal election: Steven Lipischak and Basil Evan.

When reached for comment Thursday, Lipischak said based on what he’s heard from area residents, it appears many people think it’s time for Wyatt to step down.

"Some people were calling for a byelection, but I think it’s a little too close to (the civic) election to have that," Lipischak said. "I think he should do what’s right for the citizens of Transcona.

"I cannot speak for what the people of Transcona want. But if they want him to step down at this time, then he should do that."

According to Schafer, unless he steps down, Wyatt risks seriously casting doubt on the office he holds. And unless the charges against him are quickly resolved, he added, running in the coming civic election should be out of the question.

"Things like this seriously run the risk of eroding the trust in which democratic societies and governments are heavily reliant. A public official – even if they’re innocent – once charged with a serious criminal offence, should step down until the charges are clear," Schafer said.

"Were he to run for office, it would be bizarre. Were he to be elected while these charges are pending it would be – I think – distressing, and would say something terrible about the state of city government."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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Updated on Thursday, July 12, 2018 at 11:58 PM CDT: Fixes name typo.

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