Winnipeg transportation planner quits, adding to disarray in public works department

A senior City of Winnipeg's transportation planner resigned last week, adding to the "brain drain" in the upper echelons of a public works department rocked by high-profile departures and shaken by criticism from elected officials.

Departure of third senior public works official this year leaves department "a shambles"

Winnipeg's public works department has lost three senior officials this year, all of whom weathered criticism from elected officials. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

A senior City of Winnipeg's transportation planner resigned last week, adding to, as one councillor put it, the "brain drain" in the upper echelons of the public works department, which has been rocked by high-profile departures and shaken by criticism from elected officials.

Transportation planning manager Scott Suderman informed the city on Friday he intends to leave his job at the end of the month, Winnipeg communications director Felicia Wiltshire confirmed.

"We were definitely disappointed to learn of his departure as he is a valued city employee," Wiltshire said Monday in a statement. "We wish him all the best in the next phase of his career."

Suderman gave his notice on Friday, three days after a public works committee meeting where committee chair Marty Morantz (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Whyte Ridge) lambasted the public service over the planning of the Sterling Lyon Parkway extension along a route he described as "ridiculous" because it called for the full or partial expropriation of 48 agricultural and residential properties.

Morantz also said he would like Suderman to be removed from his role as Sterling Lyon Parkway extension project director.

Morantz declined to comment on Suderman's departure on Monday. The public works chair also would not say whether his decision to draw up his own alignment for the Sterling Lyon Parkway extension led to the departure of the transportation engineer.

Suderman's departure follows the September resignation of longtime Winnipeg transportation manager Luis Escobar — who drew the ire of Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt — as well as the May dismissal of public works director Lester Deane, who contradicted Mayor Brian Bowman's claims about the ease of reopening Portage and Main to pedestrians and was described as lacking "political acumen" by chief administrative officer Doug McNeil.

Council speaker Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) called Suderman's resignation "disheartening" and worrisome in the wake of the departures of Deane and Escobar.

"I have great respect for him. Scott is a person of integrity and always has been professional in all of my dealings with him over the years. To say it is sad to see him go is a gross understatement," Sharma said in a statement.

"We need to support and protect good talent we have secured in the public service. I am concerned about the brain drain and loss of institutional knowledge particularly in our public works department."

Former council public works chair Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert) said high-quality professionals such as Escobar and Suderman don't quit their jobs without a reason.

"I've known Suderman for a long time. He loved this job. He thought it had all kinds of opportunities," Lukes said, lamenting the disarray within the public works department

"It's a shambles. We're doing the largest infrastructure projects for roads we've ever done. We don't have a permanent director. We've not seen a posting for a permanent director. 

"We've got two star people — Mr. Suderman and Mr. Escobar — both gone. I'm kind of speechless right now. That's just unbelievable. It's extremely disappointing. Clearly there's more to it," Lukes said. 

Wiltshire said Winnipeg's public works department is doing fine "in the very capable hands" of acting director Jim Berezowsky and acting transportation manager Michael Cantor.

"There are no concerns regarding the present leadership of the public works department," she said. "There is no question that working in a senior role within the public service is challenging and takes a unique skill set as the roles are demanding and are under constant public scrutiny."

Wiltshire also said it's no secret that it can be challenging to recruit people to work within senior roles at the city due to those demands and the city hopes to fill several vacancies this month.

Asked by CBC News last week whether he believes the CAO is doing a sufficient job protecting the integrity of the public service from the whims of elected officials, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said there's more work for McNeil to do.

"He's got a tough job. There's no secret that things were pretty messed up when we arrived on the scene," said Bowman, who's now spent more than three years in office.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

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.