Winnipeg council divided over Manitoba Hydro land sale, rapid transit route

A city council debate about the purchase of Manitoba Hydro land needed for rapid transit has yet to occur because council took a highly unusual if not unprecedented break to learn new information from city staff.

Council left chamber for unusual closed-door meeting; some councillors refuse to attend

Coun. Russ Wyatt speaks at city hall on Wednesday morning. Wyatt and Coun. Janice Lukes launched a last-minute effort to put off Winnipeg's purchase of Manitoba Hydro land needed to complete the Southwest Transitway. (Remi Authier/Radio-Canada)

A city council debate about the purchase of Manitoba Hydro land needed for rapid transit has yet to occur, thanks to a highly unusual if not unprecedented morning break that allowed councillors to hear more about the Southwest Transitway.

Eight of the 16 members of city council met behind closed doors Wednesday morning instead of inside the council chamber because property chair John Orlikow (River Heights-Fort Garry) called for a recess.

The closed-door meeting allowed Winnipeg Transit officials to divulge details about the public-private partnership involved in the $587-million construction of the second phase of the Southwest Transitway, the bus corridor that will eventually connect downtown to the University of Manitoba's Fort Garry campus.

Eight other councillors walked out because they refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the public-private partnership. Winnipeg Transit plans to release the information about the winning proponent of the work, along with some cost savings, on June 24.

Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt, one of the eight who walked out, accused Mayor Brian Bowman of trying intimidate council into voting in favour of the purchase of 16 acres of Manitoba Hydro of land needed for the southwest-Winnipeg bus corridor.

"This not the way you run a city," Wyatt said during the recess. "Elected representatives are being treated like children by this mayor. It's really unfortunate. It's a paternalistic approach and attitude. And it doesn't do anything to build trust and confidence."

Bowman said Wyatt's behaviour at city hall speaks for itself. The mayor said all councillors deserved the opportunity to hear more information about the cost savings that will be achieved as a result of the city working with a private company to develop the second phase of the Southwest Transitway.

"Many members of council, myself included, had asked for information that was provided. It wouldn't be provided, we were told by the administration, unless those non-disclosure agreements were signed," Bowman said over lunch.

South Winnipeg-St. Norbert Coun. Janice Lukes, who also walked out, said the new information was irrelevant to the debate over whether the city should approve the land deal.

Councillors Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan), Jason Schreyer (Elmwood-East Kildonan), Shawn Dobson (St. Charles), Brian Mayes (St. Vital), Ross Eadie (Mynarski) and Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) also refused to sign the non-disclosure agreement or attend the meeting.

Not all the councillors who walked out were angry with the mayor. Mayes said he simply knew how he would vote today on the purchase of Hydro land.

Earlier in the morning, Lukes and Wyatt launched a last-minute effort to put off the city's purchase of the  Hydro land needed to complete the transitway.

Unhappy with the proposed $19-million price — and the fact the city cannot expropriate Hydro land — Wyatt and Lukes are calling on the city to enter into a process of mediation or arbitration with Manitoba Hydro. Hydro's board approved the sale on Monday.

Lukes and Wyatt want the city to set aside $20.4 million for the land purchase until arbitration or mediation can take place with Manitoba Hydro. They say this would allow construction on the second phase of the Southwest Transitway to proceed.

Winnipeg Transit has warned the project could be scuttled or suffer from cost hikes if construction does not proceed this summer.

The Lukes-Wyatt motion calls for the Pallister government to impose arbitration or mediation on the Crown corporation. Lukes said while she has no idea whether the Progressive Conservative leader would hear her out, she wants to know how he feels about the manner in which Manitoba Hydro conducted negotiations with the City of Winnipeg over the land.

Hydro has declined comment on the motion so far.

Wyatt, meanwhile, said there is no reason council has to approve the land purchase.

"A delay of two or three weeks would not be the end of the world. It would allow us to have all of this out in the open, in the public, which I think the public deserves," he said, referring to the new information about the transitway private partner.

Bowman said he will not support Wyatt and Lukes' motion. He also said he had no issue with Lukes, the public works chair, taking an opinion on rapid transit that is different from his own.

"I respect her views and the contributions that she's making to city hall," he said, noting former council public works chair Justin Swandel also voted against rapid transit on at least one occasion.

Rapid transit is a controversial topic and the Southwest Transitway is one of the biggest capital projects in the city's history, the mayor said. "It's not unprecedented for divergent views on something of this scale," he added.

Lukes insisted her sole concern was the precedent that may be set by paying Hydro so much for its Fort Garry land.

"I am one of the biggest supporters of rapid transit. It's very important to me. I do not want to cancel it. I do not want to change the route. But I do not want a precedent set," she said.

In a separate motion, councillors Browaty and Dobson are trying to convince their council colleagues to kill the second phase of the Southwest Transitway altogether and spend the money on roads.

Their motion, the Lukes-Wyatt motion and the Hydro land sale are all being debated on Wednesday afternoon.


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.