December 18, 2017

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Warning: Obstacles ahead for new mayor and council

Honeymoon period not in cards for new mayor, revamped council

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2014 (1157 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

No matter how Winnipeg votes on Wednesday, city council is about to undergo a major makeover.

On Oct. 22, this city will have a new mayor -- its 43rd since 1874 -- to replace the retiring Sam Katz. Winnipeg will also have at least four new city councillors, thanks to the departures of Couns. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface), Justin Swandel (St. Norbert), Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands) and Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo).

Five new faces on a council with 16 seats is hardly any sort of record for Winnipeg. Contrary to popular belief, city council has undergone a tremendous amount of change over the past two elections.

Five new councillors arrived in 2010. Four new councillors -- plus a returning face in Vandal -- were elected in 2006. With so much turnover, there are only four councillors running this year who served the city before the 2006 election: Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre), Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas) and Russ Wyatt (Transcona).

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2014 (1157 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

No matter how Winnipeg votes on Wednesday, city council is about to undergo a major makeover.

On Oct. 22, this city will have a new mayor — its 43rd since 1874 — to replace the retiring Sam Katz. Winnipeg will also have at least four new city councillors, thanks to the departures of Couns. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface), Justin Swandel (St. Norbert), Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands) and Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo).

Five new faces on a council with 16 seats is hardly any sort of record for Winnipeg. Contrary to popular belief, city council has undergone a tremendous amount of change over the past two elections.

Five new councillors arrived in 2010. Four new councillors — plus a returning face in Vandal — were elected in 2006. With so much turnover, there are only four councillors running this year who served the city before the 2006 election: Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre), Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas) and Russ Wyatt (Transcona).

The quintet of open races means Winnipeg will receive another massive injection of new blood, even if every incumbent manages to hold on to his or her seat. Even more significantly, the ideological makeup of city council is about to change.

During his first two terms, Katz presided over a de facto centre-right coalition — an unofficial governing party made up of municipal politicians with ties to the Conservative or Liberal parties at other levels of government. By the end of his third term, facing a revolt among some conservative councillors, he welcomed NDP-affiliated St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes onto executive policy committee.

Overall, the city council that met for the final time this September had six Conservative-affiliated members, six councillors with Liberal ties and four with NDP affiliations.

The election of former NDP MP and MLA Judy Wasylycia-Leis, who has led every mayoral poll since late last year, would create an ideological balance of power: five Tories, six Liberals and five NDPers.

The loss of a single Tory incumbent, however, would tilt the balance of power in favour of the left. This is why the personal and legal troubles facing one-term Elmwood-East Kildonan Coun. Thomas Steen should be of huge concern for conservative voters.

The combination of a Steen loss to NDPer Jason Schreyer and a Wasylycia-Leis victory on Wednesday would be enough to marginalize all remaining council Tories to a four-seat opposition rump. That would be Jeff Browaty in North Kildonan, Grant Nordman in St. Charles and whichever conservatives wind up winning the wide-open races in Charleswood-Tuxedo and St. James-Brooklands, assuming that happens in the latter two wards.

The loss of any other Tory-affiliated seat to a left-of-centre candidate or an upset of a Katz loyalist such Devi Sharma in Old Kildonan or Wyatt in Transcona would give Wasylycia-Leis even more room to manoeuvre on council.

Anyone who claims there are no parties at city hall simply did not pay attention to the last 10 years, when Katz's centre-right coalition enjoyed a tremendous amount of power. A centre-left coalition led by Wasylycia-Leis is a tangible possibility in four days.

Of course, there are limits to what a left-leaning Winnipeg government could do with its new-found power, given the cash crunch facing the city and the hangover from a series of scandals.

Even if the NDP does "take over city hall" as Katz so famously feared in 2010, it may not be able to do much aside from tread water. After the final piece of confetti falls to the floor at the victorious mayor's campaign headquarters, here's what council must do — and do it quickly:

Five headaches facing the new mayor and council

1. EPC: Some assembly required

One of the first tasks Winnipeg's new leader must face is assembling the loyal posse known as executive policy committee. This body is supposed to provide final oversight on major city plans before they head to council as a whole, but effectively functions like the mayor's cabinet, with all members appointed by the mayor and most chairing one or more council committees.

Some mayoral candidates have vowed to abolish EPC or reform it by allowing all of council to elect its members. Even if Winnipeg's new mayor wants to go in that direction, he or she won't have time to make any reforms before a council organizing meeting on Nov. 4, when all members of chamber are sworn in and assigned committee duties.

The real choice facing Winnipeg's next mayor is whether to assemble a group of like-minded (or at least pliable) individuals or to appoint the broadest possible array of councillors. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

Pack EPC with councillors who are all on the same ideological page, and you may have an easier time vetting city reports and planning the closed-door gatherings known as IEPC meetings. But you run the risk of creating an us-versus-them dynamic at council as a whole. This happened during Sam Katz's first two terms, which saw the mayor rarely lose a vote — but also govern as the de facto leader of a centre-right municipal political party.

A more consensus-based EPC featuring a broader mix of people would send a more inclusive message to the city as a whole. But the reality is it would require the mayor to fight two battles on many issues: first to achieve consensus at IEPC and then to convince broader council that's bound to include both left-leaning and right-leaning members. This will require the sort of political stickhandling that won't come easy to any rookie mayor.

2. How to train your administrative dragon

Senior members of Winnipeg's public service have been living in limbo since October 2013, when chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl resigned in the wake of several city scandals.

Dave Wardrop

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dave Wardrop

The search to replace Sheegl was put off until a new council is in place. That means hiring a new CAO will be one of the first tasks the new mayor and council must oversee.

Since Sheegl's departure, former chief operating officer Deepak Joshi has served as acting CAO and former city solicitor Michael Jack has served as acting COO. These officials could slide back into their old jobs.

Council could also choose to put entirely new people in charge in an effort to make a more formal break with the Sam Katz era. A widespread purge of the public service, however, is unlikely for two reasons: The city can't afford severance packages or the loss of institutional knowledge.

Numerous people are expected to apply for the CAO's job. One official to watch is 10-year Winnipeg Transit director Dave Wardrop, who was under consideration to serve as acting CAO in 2013.

 

3. New mayor, deficit slayer

Congratulations, whoever gets elected Wednesday. You'll be the proud new owner of the ugliest year-end fiscal situation in Winnipeg's recent history.

As of September, the City of Winnipeg was headed toward a year-end operating shortfall of $22.4 million. The final size of the deficit won't be known until February 2015.

Since Winnipeg isn't allowed to run a deficit, reserve funds will be used to cover up the red ink. And that's the real bad news for the new mayor, as councils have typically relied upon modest year-end surpluses to help shore up the operating budget for the following year. And that brings us right to...

 

4. Budget-season bonanza!

Outside of election years, Winnipeg tries to table its operating and capital budgets — the blueprints for spending on services and infrastructure — in November or December. That's not possible during an election year, when politicians spend the fall trying to impress voters instead of hammering out how much money belongs in any of a thousand different budget line items.

The new mayor will face a steep learning curve as he or she tries to make sense of all the financial data. Department directors will attempt to hold onto all their existing funding but also won't want to cross swords with a new mayor, who will be extended a tremendous amount of goodwill.

The danger is not so much the new mayor will get hoodwinked by public servants, but the opposite: Administrators may tell Her or His Worship what they want to hear, instead of what they need to hear.

Factor in fast-rising costs and limited revenue growth and the new mayor's attempts to cobble together a 2015 budget will be at best a gruelling affair. That means Winnipeggers should not expect much happy news out of a budget anticipated in February.

When the operating budget is tabled, it's entirely possible Winnipeggers will face both service cuts and a property-tax hike, regardless of who's elected mayor — and in spite of promises to the contrary.

And the capital budget won't be packed with the big-ticket goodies that graced Sam Katz's second-term spending plans.

 

5. The rapid-transit tightrope

When that capital budget is drafted, it will face the headache of how to finance the Fort Garry "integrated capital project," a bureaucratic term for the completion of the bus corridor and the addition of a lane on Pembina Highway in the underpass below Jubilee Avenue.

Under Sam Katz, the city and province committed $450 million in funding. Ottawa is expected to come aboard. But with several mayoral candidates pledging to review, amend or put off the project, a quick decision must be made to avoid the loss of federal funding. For Judy Wasylycia-Leis, that decision may run contrary to a promise to review the cost.

Candidates who've pledged not to complete the bus corridor, such as Gord Steeves and Robert-Falcon Ouellette, would not be able to devote transit funds to other priorities, as the Selinger government would simply pull its funding and Ottawa would at best require Winnipeg's new mayor to apply for cash under the next round of Building Canada Fund disbursements.

The bus is already rolling, set in motion by the previous council.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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