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The 'mayor of Transcona'

Wyatt should use his charm instead of his political fists

Councillor Russ Wyatt on active transportation plan: '$334 million for cycling infrastructure is simply too much'

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Councillor Russ Wyatt on active transportation plan: '$334 million for cycling infrastructure is simply too much' Purchase Photo Print

With the bike-lane fight headlining city hall, it's worthwhile to ponder the political skills of Coun. Russ Wyatt, a.k.a. "the mayor of Transcona." First elected in 2002 after working in his family insurance business, Wyatt is also the son of a previous Transcona councillor. Occasionally, he's been known to wear a fedora as his trademark accessory. He is often jovially funny, he can be sharp, and at least half of his crazy ideas aren't that crazy.

But while he has wits, they aren't Wyatt's weapon of choice. When seats in Parliament were laid out with 'two sword lengths' between the members, they had guys like Russ Wyatt in mind. In the Katz era, Wyatt's favourite tactic was to sneak past staff, corner the mayor at his desk and simply berate him until the weaker man caved.

Pundits tagged Wyatt as a potential contender in every recent mayoral election. But he's never crossed that line, and wisely so. He hasn't upped his game enough to get there. And that's the defining reason why 'Councillor Maverick' is paradoxically both the most effective and the most limited political player at city hall.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/7/2015 (810 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

With the bike-lane fight headlining city hall, it's worthwhile to ponder the political skills of Coun. Russ Wyatt, a.k.a. "the mayor of Transcona." First elected in 2002 after working in his family insurance business, Wyatt is also the son of a previous Transcona councillor. Occasionally, he's been known to wear a fedora as his trademark accessory. He is often jovially funny, he can be sharp, and at least half of his crazy ideas aren't that crazy.

 

But while he has wits, they aren't Wyatt's weapon of choice. When seats in Parliament were laid out with 'two sword lengths' between the members, they had guys like Russ Wyatt in mind. In the Katz era, Wyatt's favourite tactic was to sneak past staff, corner the mayor at his desk and simply berate him until the weaker man caved.

Pundits tagged Wyatt as a potential contender in every recent mayoral election. But he's never crossed that line, and wisely so. He hasn't upped his game enough to get there. And that's the defining reason why 'Councillor Maverick' is paradoxically both the most effective and the most limited political player at city hall.

In late 2005, Wyatt stood alone against the proposed Olywest factory at a point when senior city officials treated it as a done deal. Wyatt rallied opponents, won allies and even heckled press conferences. He ultimately lost at council, but in trademark Wyatt style, he simply outflanked the whole building, assembling provincial allies to beat Olywest down in the NDP's backrooms.

The list goes on. In the mid-2000s, Katz and his cabinet held back on several proposals — including planned golf-course sales — largely in deference to Wyatt, knowing he'd never vote to offend his CUPE allies. Today, Wyatt is a leading critic of high city wages and CUPE job guarantees. Once an advocate for a better city-provincial relationship, his role in Steve Ashton's failed 2009 leadership bid turned Wyatt against the NDP, and his angry anti-provincial rhetoric certainly poisoned a few wells in recent years.

Yet, Wyatt isn't just a master of "no"; his occasional moments of "yes" are buried deep in city hall's policy DNA as well. For example, in 2005-2006, Wyatt repeatedly — and rightly — pushed council to get several proposed police stations built faster to reduce related service disruptions. The city's increased use of P3s and the rapid construction of the East District police station were both the direct result of his pressure.

More recently, in 2013, Wyatt persuaded councillors to reject a proposed cement plant slated for a Transcona site that was already zoned for heavy industry. I still describe this as one of Winnipeg's dumbest decisions. But while it was stupid for the city, it was great for Wyatt. And Wyatt often gets his way because he is a genius at negotiating with colleagues and critics without regard for past battles. While he's over-the-top contemptuous with public servants and consultants when they stand in his way, his political door is always ajar just enough to build a new micro-coalition whenever he needs one. Witness his repeated shifts from Katz critic to Katz ally and back again, all in one mayoralty.

But while he's flexible, Wyatt makes it hard for others to be flexible in reply. Those who work with him do so with a dagger in their spare hand for self-defence. Which brings us back to the bike-lane fight. Wyatt's tactics are familiar: attack experts and staff, exaggerate the effects of the proposal, attack proponents' motives, etc. Leave no stone un-thrown.

It made sense that Wyatt went nuclear over Olywest. Not so much over bike lanes. The plan's dreamland timetable is so long and vague it's absurd to pretend it's a blank cheque. Sure, the bike plan's engineering consultant made some politically tactless remarks, but where a quick rebuttal would suffice, Wyatt is talking about filing a formal complaint.

Most other Canadian winter cities have had positive downtown bike-lane experiences; Wyatt's doomsday rhetoric won't convince the plurality of councillors who are seeing those results reported nationwide.

Even when he's wrong, Wyatt's arguments are usually worth a listen. Yet, he makes listening so much tougher than it has to be. Somewhere in the bike-lane fight, there were always a few alternative approaches buried in the details that would've addressed downtown complaints with a minimum of political rancour.

If Wyatt would only use his natural wit a little more and his political fists a little less, he'd be getting praise for forging that compromise as you read this. Instead, he's busy closing minds that would otherwise be open to his underused talent for persuasion.

 

Brian Kelcey is a public policy consultant. He previously served as a senior adviser in the mayor's office and in the Ontario government.

Twitter: @stateofthecity

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