Manitoba·Analysis

The more things (do not) change: A look back at city hall in 2018

The past year at city hall ought to have been momentous, thanks to the municipal election. Instead, the most memorable story of the year at 510 Main St. involved something that did not change at all.

Portage and Main remaining shuttered tops the city hall stories of the year

Portage and Main remains closed to pedestrians following an Oct. 25 plebiscite. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Don't ever change, Winnipeg. That's not advice. It's more like the unofficial civic motto.

The past year at city hall ought to have been momentous, thanks to the municipal election. Instead, the most memorable story of the year at 510 Main St. involved something that did not change at all.

The top three stories of the year from city hall: 

1. Portage and Main

In 1979, the City of Winnipeg erected barriers at its most famous intersection as part of a development deal that saw the construction of an underground mall. The deal to keep those barriers in place expires in 2019.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman promised to remove the Portage and Main barriers when he first ran for office in 2014. But that task proved to be complicated, thanks to negotiations with downtown property owners, engineering headaches associated with removing structures that extend underground, traffic implications and opposition from some members of council.

City hall entered 2018 with a plan to spend up to $3.5 million improving Portage and Main and preparing to reopen one of its four crossings to pedestrians. But as the election neared, several of Bowman's EPC allies joined the ranks of councillors questioning the idea.

As well, mayoral challenger Jenny Motkaluk spent the first few months of her campaign trying to use Portage and Main as a wedge to separate the relatively popular Bowman from his relatively unpopular promise.

When North Kildonan Coun. Jeff Browaty proposed a plebsicite on reopening the intersection, the mayor blinked and supported the idea. More importantly, so did every member of council except departing urbanist Jenny Gerbasi.

The day council voted for the plebiscite was the day Team Open effectively lost. On election day, the result was 65 per cent against reopening Portage and Main.

In 2019, Portage and Main is still slated to be improved. But the mayor has pledged to respect the plebiscite results, all but ensuring the intersection will remain closed for another four years at the very least.

2. Russ Wyatt's tumultuous year

During 16 years as a Winnipeg elected official, former Transcona councillor Russ Wyatt demonstrated he was a fiery orator with a mercurial personality. His penchant for political theatrics bedevilled three successive mayors and made him a force with whom to be reckoned, whether or not he sat as a member of executive policy committee.

But nothing he did in office was memorable in 2018, a year when his personal struggles overshadowed his public service.

Former councillor Russ Wyatt experienced a tumultuous year. (Thomas Asselin/CBC)

In January, Wyatt took a leave from city hall to undergo addictions treatment at a facility near Gimli. After his return to city hall, he was charged with a sexual assault that was alleged to have taken place shortly before his treatment started.

Wyatt mulled another run for office last fall before declaring he was still recovering from treatment. He stated his intent to defend himself against the sexual-assault charge, which has not been proven in court.

3. Five new faces at city hall

As a horse race, Winnipeg's mayoral campaign was a bit of a snoozer. Bowman won a second term with 53 per cent of the popular vote, vs. 36 per cent for Motkaluk, his closest challenger.

As a narrative, the race was a little more interesting, as few Winnipeggers had ever heard of Motkaluk mere months before she earned more than a third of the popular vote. 

Nonetheless, the most significant result on election night, in terms of actual impact, was the emergence of five new faces at city hall.

The retirement of Gerbasi in Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry paved the way for NDP-aligned former school trustee Sherri Rollins to take the south-central Winnipeg seat and quickly emerge as a Bowman ally.

Wyatt's departure from the political scene allowed Tory-affiliated Shawn Nason to join city hall as the new Transcona councillor. Marty Morantz's decision to pursue a House of Commons seat made room for Kevin Klein to become the new councillor for what's now Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood.

Couns Sherri Rollins, Vivian Santos and Markus Chambers are among five rookies at city hall. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

In Point Douglas, Vivian Santos made the jump from serving as Mike Pagtakhan's executive assistant to becoming the councillor herself. And Markus Chambers became the councillor for the realigned St. Norbert-Seine River ward, after Janice Lukes moved over to run in the new Waverley West ward and the St. Charles ward was eliminated altogether, along with the political future of former councillor Shawn Dobson.

While five new faces is significant, the turnover in 2018 was actually less than it was during the previous election, when half of council's 16 seats were claimed by rookies. Nonetheless, all the new faces in recent years has left council relatively short on experience.

Case in point: Browaty, who is 40 years old, is city council's elder statesperson on the basis of years in office.

About the Author

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.

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