There's always a party at city hall

Over the past three months, a mayoral-friendly faction unofficially known as "EPC plus two" has met behind closed doors to discuss legislation heading toward council.

Unofficial municipal parties are the norm in Winnipeg, even without conventional party politics

In retrospect, the reorganization of city council in November has placed Mayor Brian Bowman in a stronger tactical position. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

On paper, there's no such thing as party politics at city hall. While most members of council are connected to political parties in some way, their ideological affiliations aren't listed on election day, nor acknowledged in any formal manner once they take office.

This does not mean there are no parties at city hall. Informal groupings do exist, usually organized along the lines of support or opposition to the sitting mayor.

During Sam Katz's decade in office, from 2004 to 2014, this dynamic was pronounced and easy to observe. The informal party of the mayor was a centre-right coalition of councillors with Tory and Liberal ties. Votes on contentious issues often passed by a margin of 12-4 or 10-6, depending on the term in question, with left-leaning Liberal and NDP councillors on the losing side of the vote.

When Brian Bowman became mayor, he vowed to do away with what he described as old-school politics. But this mayor still needs at least eight other votes to pass legislation in a 16-member city council.

After two years in office, Bowman now appears to be relying on a de facto party of his own, based entirely upon the ease with which he's capable of working with other councillors.

Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, the longest-serving member of council, was a member of the de facto opposition when Sam Katz was mayor. She's now deputy mayor and a trusted ally of Brian Bowman. (CBC News )
After reorganizing council responsibilities in November and shuffling the makeup of executive policy committee, Bowman wound up at the helm of a nine-member party of the mayor that includes all seven members of executive policy committee plus council's new deputy mayor, Coun. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) and the acting deputy mayor, Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface).

Since November, this group has not always voted as a nine-member bloc. But it can be counted upon to support mayoral priorities, whether or not any initiative enjoys the support of the other seven members of city council.

Council's unofficial opposition is now comprised of four councillors Bowman could not rely on before November — Russ Wyatt (Transcona), Ross Eadie (Mynarski), Jason Schreyer (Elmwood-East Kildonan) and Shawn Dobson (St. Charles) — plus the two former allies he shuffled out of EPC, Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert) and Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan).

The 16th and final member of council, speaker Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan), is now more or less an independent.

The rise of 'EPC + 2'

Both the new party of the mayor and council's de facto opposition are ideologically diverse. The new political currency is not party affiliation, but access to the information that flows through the mayor's office.

Over the past three months, the mayor-friendly faction — or "EPC + 2," as Wyatt calls it — have met behind closed doors on several occasions to discuss legislation heading toward council. The most recent instance, which involved a discussion about Bowman's push to have the province call a public inquiry into Winnipeg's real-estate and capital procurement scandals, led to complaints, both in public and in private, from members of the unofficial opposition.​

"I think this has come to a head with this inquiry motion," Gerbasi said Monday in an interview, acknowledging she and Allard have attended some meetings with members of executive policy committee.

"We meet, but we're not making decisions. We're not part of EPC," she said, arguing it makes sense for Bowman to work closely with councillors who have demonstrated an ability to work with the mayor.

"To have discussions with councillors who you can trust and work with, you can do that on occasion."

Mayor 'free to meet' whomever he likes

Jonathan Hildebrand, the mayor's communications director, said there's another reason Bowman ought to work more closely with Gerbasi and Allard. It makes sense to keep them up to speed on policy because they may be called upon to act in place of Bowman, given their new duties on council, he said.

"The mayor is free to meet with his deputy mayor and acting deputy mayor as frequently as he deems necessary. According to the [city] charter, they assume all powers of the mayor in the mayor's absence," Hildebrand said via email.

The mayor's spokesman nonetheless rejected the notion that "EPC + 2" functions like a majority on council. Every member of council is free to assemble nine votes, he argued.

That's true, but only the mayor has the power to make appointments. As well, up until very recently, the deputy mayor and acting deputy mayor were members of executive policy committee.

St. Boniface Coun. Matt Allard, left, was named acting deputy mayor last fall, while Daniel McIntyre Coun. Cindy Gilroy was promoted to EPC. Both are council rookies. (CBC)
To outsiders like Wyatt, the formation of "EPC + 2" represents a subversion of council's rules. Over the weekend, he sent Bowman a series of angry emails, complaining about being left in the dark regarding the inquiry motion.

Whether or not his concerns have merit, the reality is full meetings of council have always been more about political theatre than governance. Regardless of whether Bowman, Katz or Glen Murray has sat in the mayor's office, almost every major initiative has arrived at council as a fait accompli, with the outcome all but certain.

Unofficial parties at city hall allow this to happen.


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.