Brian Bowman, who sought change at city hall, finds plenty of it under his nose with staff turnover

When he ran for mayor, Brian Bowman campaigned on a promise of change at city hall. Three years later, his own office has undergone more upheaval than any other city department.

14 employees have left Winnipeg mayor's office since 2014 inauguration; only 4 original staffers remain

Mayor Brian Bowman promised change and he found it in his office. Only four members of his staff have remained with the mayor's office since his inauguration in 2014. (John Einarson/CBC)

When he ran for mayor of Winnipeg, Brian Bowman campaigned on a promise of change at city hall. Three years later, his own office has undergone more upheaval than any other city department.

No fewer than 14 employees have left the mayor's office since Bowman's inauguration in 2014, while only four of the mayor's 12 existing staffers have survived from the beginning of the term.

Bowman's ambitious political agenda, the inexperience of his original team and the ordinary pressures associated with political work are all being cited as explanations for the high rate of turnover in the office of the mayor.

"It's not uncommon in political offices to have turnover. I think that's healthy," Bowman said in an interview last week at city hall.

"These jobs are demanding. They're under a lot of scrutiny and I expect a lot from my staff — and I push very hard to get results for the people that I ultimately serve, which are Winnipeggers."

The 14 departed mayoral staffers run the gamut from senior policy advisors to comminications people to administrative assistants. Their time with the mayor's office ranged from more than two years to as little as two weeks.

Chief of staff Jason Fuith has known Brian Bowman since the two were Grade 9 students at Shaftesbury High School. (Economic Development Winnipeg)
"Teams change. They change for different reasons and the environment we're in changes. It's an ever-moving experience," said Jason Fuith, Bowman's chief of staff and one of the four employees who started with Bowman in November 2014 and remain in the office.

Johanna Wood, who worked on Bowman's mayoral campaign and served as his social media officer for the first year of his term, said the mayor had ambitious plans for his administration when he entered office.

"He went in with a lot of energy. Most of us on the team that went in with him had a pretty good idea of of the things he wanted to accomplish and were on board for that," said Wood, who left the mayor's office to work for the Manitoba Liberal Party in 2015.

"I think there's a lot of things, once you get into the office, that are realized. There's a whole city to learn," she said. "The learning curve was really steep. There was a lot more to the job."

Inherited 'truly messed up' city hall: Bowman

When Bowman put together his team, he retained three employees from former mayor Sam Katz's office in order to keep some form of institutional memory: communications director Carmen Barnett, office manager Jeannine Stotski and policy analyst Pieter Prinsloo.

Barnett was later promoted to senior advisor and plans to leave the mayor's office in the coming year — the last of Bowman's first term. Stotski was promoted to operations manager and community liaison, while Prinsloo left the mayor's office earlier this year to become a city clerk.

Bowman selected newcomers to city hall to round out his cadre of advisors. Chief among them was Fuith, an electrical engineer who served as Bowman's campaign manager in 2014.

Former Bowman social media officer Johanna Wood said the learning curve for staff in the mayor's office was steep. (Radio-Canada)
Bowman and Fuith are longtime associates who first met in Grade 9 at Shaftesbury High School in Tuxedo.  While they were not close friends as teenagers, they reconnected through social circles as adults.

The mayor said he chose Fuith to first run his campaign and then serve as his chief of staff because of the engineer's smarts and status as a political outsider.

"What I like is that he's an engineer and he's not someone that comes from the political world. That was really important to me. I think we'd seen too much politics at city hall and I wanted to have somebody who came in here without politics being top of mind," Bowman said.

"I didn't want to pick up the same machine that had been there for a previous mayor or previous candidates. I wanted to build something new."

During the 2014 campaign, Fuith assembled a team made up of people with no political experience, as well as people with ties to the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats. Several veterans of that campaign with partisan affiliations told CBC News they were surprised to work alongside people they would normally regard as opponents.

"There are political parties and they have the machine, as it were, and the machine usually finds this candidate they like, and this machine turns on and this happens," Fuith said

"The one thing that [Bowman] didn't want to do was go to the normal machine. And what do engineers do? We build machines."

Brian Bowman celebrates after his victory in the mayoral race on Oct. 22, 2014. Winnipeggers go back to the polls on Oct. 24, 2018. (John Woods/Canadian Press)
Following the election campaign, during which Bowman promised changes to a city hall that was reeling from the scandals of the Sam Katz era, the new mayor's relatively inexperienced team of advisors discovered it would not be so easy to institute that change.

"It's a big ship. You just can't swing the wheel and go quick," said Fuith, adding he should have asked tougher questions of Winnipeg's public service during his initial months as chief of staff.

"I would liked to have known just how truly messed up city hall was," Bowman added. "We knew it was a mess. We knew there was really a deficit in trust between the public service and elected officials, between the media and elected officials and the administration and more importantly, between the public and city hall.

"When we actually opened the hood and saw the engine, I don't think anybody could have imagined how messed up it was."

Corey Shefman, who worked on Bowman's campaign team, suggested it was inevitable for the mayor's initial team to become frustrated.

"When you have a city hall that is as broken as Winnipeg's has been, that change is very difficult. You're going to ruffle some feathers," Shefman said in a telephone interview from Toronto, where he now works as a lawyer.

"He had an ambitious agenda and I can only imagine that in the face of institutional resistance, patience may have worn thin," Shefman said.

Corey Shefman, who campaigned for Bowman, says the mayor's office would have benefited from more experience early on. (CBC)

"I think the mayor would have benefited from having more experienced people around him and that may have contributed to the situation he's found himself in."

2 senior advisors departed within a year

Within a year of Bowman's inauguration, the mayor's office lost his most experienced advisor. Jana Thorsteinson, an experienced Progressive Conservative campaigner who worked for Bowman during the mayoral race and joined his office as his community engagement director, resigned from the city in 2015. 

She now works for the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology and declined a CBC News request for comment on her time with the mayor.

The mayor's office then sought to beef up its policy office by hiring former federal Conservative worker John Morris as a policy director. His job title was amended to municipal relations director before he left Bowman's office in 2016.

"I enjoyed my time with the mayor and appreciated the opportunity to work with him and I'll leave it at that," said Morris, who now works for the University of Manitoba.

Bowman said he could not discuss the circumstances surrounding the departures of either Thorsteinson or Morris.

"They're great people. They worked really hard while they were here," he said.

Bowman expected to run again

The mayor has not committed to a re-election run in 2018, though he is widely expected to seek a second term when Winnipeggers go to the polls a year from now, on Oct. 24, 2018. Even Fuith said he is encouraging Bowman to seek re-election.

The mayor is not ready to declare, however.

"Before we start talking about volunteers and campaign teams, there first has to be a decision I have to make with my family," Bowman said.

"That being said, I continue to have as much energy as I've ever had in the role. It's a tremendous opportunity to serve and I've been really invigorated by the opportunity over the past three years."
When he ran for mayor of Winnipeg, Brian Bowman campaigned on a promise of change at city hall. Three years later, his own office has undergone more upheaval than any other city department. 2:20

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Before joining CBC Manitoba, Bartley Kives spent most of his career in journalism at the Winnipeg Free Press, covering politics, music, food, the environment 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.