Jenny Gerbasi prepares to leave after 20 years on Winnipeg city council

After 20 years on Winnipeg city council, Jenny Gerbasi knows what it’s like to be both a part of the governing coalition and member of the opposition.

Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry councillor served under 3 different mayors

Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, the longest-serving member of city council, says she won't seek re-election this fall. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

After 20 years on Winnipeg city council, Jenny Gerbasi knows what it's like to be both a part of the governing coalition and member of the opposition.

The outgoing Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry councillor, who isn't running for re-election in 2018, has been an ally on council to mayors Glen Murray and Brian Bowman, as well as an outspoken critic of Sam Katz.

"You need to know what you believe, because you're not in a party system. It's just you working with others," she said in an interview on CBC Manitoba's afternoon radio show Up to Speed. "You have to be able to be in a room and know what you think when everyone else thinks something else, and still have your own understanding of that and be able to stand up for that."

Gerbasi was first elected in 1998. She says she was first encouraged to run for elected office after she got involved in the fight against a plan by the former Progressive Conservative government of Gary Filmon to privatize home care services.

"The political bug bit me in dealing with that issue," she said.

She decided to enter municipal politics because she says the issues at that level affect people most directly.

"I'm also an urbanist, I care a lot about things like transit and I care about heritage, and many of the issues that we deal with so directly are at that level," she said.

Reflecting on her years on council under Glen Murray, Gerbasi called it "a really exciting time." She cited the Esplanade Riel, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Centre Venture, and the efforts to build the rapid transit network as projects that began during Murray's time in office.

Her role on council changed after the election of Sam Katz, when she became  "kind of the unofficial leader of the opposition, at times," she said.

"I felt like I had a role to play in holding people accountable, so it was kind of satisfying in that sense, but it's much more fun to be part of a team, as opposed to fighting and trying to get heard."

Despite being on the outside of that city council, Gerbasi saw advancement on issues she cared about, particularly transit, with the introduction of the U-Pass for university students and the beginning of construction on the first phase of the southwest rapid transit corridor.

During that period, she also took on a role with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

"Which kind of kept my sanity, because I was working with a really great team of people at the national level."

After Bowman's election, Gerbasi was back on the inside, serving as deputy mayor. She says she and Bowman care about many of the same issues, including climate change, transit, and downtown development.

"I've been able to work more as a team again, which I like doing. I am a team player and I'll do what I need to do to represent the people as best I can," she said.

One part of life on city council she won't miss are the meetings.

"There's so much grandstanding and people filling up their 10 minutes of time, and after 20 years of it, you're kind of like 'Ahh, I don't want to listen to this anymore.'"

She acknowledges, though, that even council meetings had their moments when things came together and people got things done.

"That is where the things get decided and it's important, but it requires a lot of patience, being a city councillor. It requires a lot of listening," she said.

As the council for Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry, Gerbasi represented vastly different neighbourhoods, from Fort Garry to West Broadway. She says she thinks of those neighbourhoods like her "children."

"They're all different and unique, the neighbourhoods I've represented. West Broadway has its own character compared to Fort Garry. But I kind of respond to what the needs are as they come forward and try to be there to support the community."

With files from Kim Kaschor