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Joshi's political epitaph is political

Winnipeg's suspended acting CAO Deepak Joshi: He signed on as Phil Sheegl's guy, crossing the line from public servant to politician.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg's suspended acting CAO Deepak Joshi: He signed on as Phil Sheegl's guy, crossing the line from public servant to politician. Purchase Photo Print

It may be premature to talk about Winnipeg's suspended acting chief administrative officer Deepak Joshi as if he's already done at city hall. But even if council doesn't follow through on Mayor Brian Bowman's bold decision to suspend him, Joshi has almost run down the clock on his interim post. So either way, it's time to write his political epitaph -- precisely because his current predicament is so political.

For the record, when I worked at city hall, I worked closely with Joshi on dozens of files, from cutting red tape to hiking development fees. And I was glad to. Part of what helped us work, think and gripe together was that I was a political hack and he was a public servant. We were both experienced enough to appreciate the difference.

But things changed when another man rode in on his horse from Arizona. In 2008, Phil Sheegl was appointed as Joshi's direct superior. And as we all now know, Sheegl was Mayor Sam Katz's friend. He was the kind of friend who'd sell you a corporation for a buck, if you wanted one just for kicks.

Sheegl rose in public service faster than any real public servant had been trained to expect. The faster he rose, the more city hall was co-opted by Sheegl's confrontational, deal-maker approach to government. And the more Joshi got splashed by the greasy politics that spilled out of Sheegl's office, the more eager he seemed to bathe in it.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/1/2015 (976 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It may be premature to talk about Winnipeg's suspended acting chief administrative officer Deepak Joshi as if he's already done at city hall. But even if council doesn't follow through on Mayor Brian Bowman's bold decision to suspend him, Joshi has almost run down the clock on his interim post. So either way, it's time to write his political epitaph — precisely because his current predicament is so political.

For the record, when I worked at city hall, I worked closely with Joshi on dozens of files, from cutting red tape to hiking development fees. And I was glad to. Part of what helped us work, think and gripe together was that I was a political hack and he was a public servant. We were both experienced enough to appreciate the difference.

But things changed when another man rode in on his horse from Arizona. In 2008, Phil Sheegl was appointed as Joshi's direct superior. And as we all now know, Sheegl was Mayor Sam Katz's friend. He was the kind of friend who'd sell you a corporation for a buck, if you wanted one just for kicks.

Sheegl rose in public service faster than any real public servant had been trained to expect. The faster he rose, the more city hall was co-opted by Sheegl's confrontational, deal-maker approach to government. And the more Joshi got splashed by the greasy politics that spilled out of Sheegl's office, the more eager he seemed to bathe in it.

Smart public servants leave politics to the politicians. Veteran politicians know that "don't defend the indefensible" tops the list of golden political rules. But as Sheegl rose in the ranks, it was as if Joshi appointed himself minister of defence for the indefensible.

Joshi excused the Parker land swap controversy by arguing "the deal was done, and there was no sense wasting time." When Sheegl installed a "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" statue outside his office, Joshi defended it as a matter of personal taste. Auditors confirmed a ten-million dollar appraisal of parcel four was omitted from a staff report recommending its sale for six-million dollars, Joshi's excuse was that it "was not a traditional real estate report." He spun fire station 11's cost overruns as a "public safety" matter, ignoring reports that the expansion was originally meant to house a museum.

As acting CAO, Joshi publicly defended a tax plan Mayor Katz favoured, even though council had yet to debate the idea. Auditors recommended city lawyers report to council in future to minimize conflicts, yet Joshi appointed the city solicitor as his second in command, effectively flipping the bird to the audit.

And so on.

So what was the last straw? The most common story is that Joshi didn't give Mayor Bowman a heads-up when the RCMP began interviewing public servants. Who knows? And given the overall chaos, what difference does it make?

In search of silver linings, some see Joshi's potential departure as a chance to finally bring closure to city hall's Dark Age. I don't see that. Surely, no reckoning will be complete without some explicit declaration of public victory. For example, Winnipeg has two nameless sewage treatment plants. If council recognized Sam Katz's and Phil Sheegl's years of public service by renaming each in their honour, that would bring closure much nearer. It'd send a clear, enduring message: When it comes to outrage, political law offers no loopholes.

In contrast, naming a civic bauble for Deepak Joshi needs more nuance, since his story is more tragedy than farce.

Remember that shortly after I left city hall in 2008, the city renovated a floor of new office suites for senior managers. Someone should fix a plaque on the wall in those offices, right above where Sheegl kept his three-monkey statue. Do that, and the first thing new managers will see on their arrival is a sign that reads 'Acting CAO Deepak Joshi Executive Suites.'

Before he signed on as "Phil's guy," my friend Deepak was rightly seen as a cheerful, candid and exemplary public servant. He was a transparency advocate who spoke in solutions, not in excuses. He even inspired others to do better (me among them). But he was also quick to observe that public servants who made too many political choices would eventually get burned, because politics wasn't their job — or their world.

If that guy is still around, and if he were to see that sign, I know he'd appreciate the irony.

 

Brian Kelcey served as a senior adviser in the Mayor's Office from 2005 to 2008.

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History

Updated on Monday, January 19, 2015 at 7:38 AM CST: Replaces photo

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