Power to spare

How much power does a mayor have?

Consider the case of Bus Rapid Transit. Many of the councillors who voted in favour of BRT under Mayor Glen Murray have voted against it since Sam Katz became mayor, including the chair and two of three other councillors who compiled a January 7, 2000 task force report on the city’s transit system, Direction to the Future, which recommended an on-street rapid bus system — BRT — where feasible. They singled out the Southwest Transit Corridor, which would have been the first stage of the proposed BRT system. 

Chair Councillor Peter de Smedt (St. Charles) and councillors Jae Eadie (St. James-Brooklands), Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) and Mark Lubosh (North Kildonan) were the authors of the 2000 task force report and joined most councillors and Murray in passing a series of motions that eventually led to $50 million in cost-sharing funding between the federal, provincial and city governments being set aside to start the process of creating a BRT. 

But what a difference a new mayor can make. The vote on September 30 to redirect the funding to community centres and rec centres wasn’t unanimous, but only five councillors dared oppose Mayor Katz. Of the 2000 report authors, only Gerbasi voted against the Katz motion.

Why? Well, the first consideration is that Katz has yet to appoint councillors to the powerful Executive 

Policy Committee. Those who voted against the redirection of funding favoured by the mayor won’t have much of a chance to gain a seat on the EPC. Even one supporter of BRT said he voted to redirect funding 

simply because the new mayor was against BRT. 

Conspiracy theorists may even consider that the mayor pushed for an early vote on BRT to judge whom he should appoint to the EPC in November. The appointment of an EPC thus becomes a function of BRT voting.

But, this is only one of a number of possible reasons for not immediately adopting BRT. 

The vote on the BRT could also be a function of the PUFS, or Public Use Facilities, report which outlined the dire need for funds to fix decaying pools, arenas and clubs and build new recreational infrastructure. Katz obviously arrived at the conclusion that the PUFS report had to be heeded before BRT was considered. He simply has another set of priorities which seem to be in opposition to those  of Murray’s administration. Katz calls this creating a new era of government at city hall and being responsible for making tough decisions and identifying priorities.

But, there’s actually nothing really new about the politicians who now steer the city. Besides Katz, the only new members at city hall are Donald Benham (River Heights-Fort Garry) and Franco Magnifico (St. Boniface) — all the rest served when Murray was mayor, though not all were Murray supporters.

Still, the change of only one person — mayor — did create a strong shift in priorities at city hall with most councillors thus far willing to follow the mayor whatever their motivation.

Benham, who calls himself an independent councillor and supports BRT, questions whether the motivation of some of his colleagues was to only follow the mayor and then be rewarded accordingly. 

He admits there’s need to rebuild recreation infrastructure, but he also claims there is a more pressing need to go ahead with BRT.

A mistake was made by those 

supporting BRT, he told a meeting of the Winnipeg Real Estate Board 

directors. “The public didn’t have enough details about BRT. We didn’t do enough to sell the idea, so the 

decision (against it) was made in a vacuum.” Besides the public not 

being in the know, de Smedt told the media he earlier tried to get more 

details on the BRT proposal but 

they weren’t forthcoming from the former administration. Other councillors said they did not have the 

opportunity under Murray to debate the issue and have a stand-alone vote on BRT.

The overall result is that BRT has “stopped and it’s stopped indefinitely,” Benham told the WREN. “How could we have more favourable circumstances that will make it a priority again. We had the backing of both of the federal and provincial governments, the money was lined up. I don’t see how a new task force (to be appointed by Katz to re-investigate BRT) will make a difference.”

To Benham, the task force is just another delaying tactic which has been ongoing for 30 years, ever since former Mayor Steve Juba came up with the idea of a monorail system — a form of rapid transit — to link the downtown with the University of Manitoba. “What a terrible mistake was made 30 years ago,” he said.  Benham believes the new task force report on BRT will simply collect dust on some shelf as have so many other reports in the past.

Mistake or not, the whole debate on BRT has underlined the fact that the new mayor has his own priorities for the future of Winnipeg and thus far he has the power to have a majority of councillors follow his lead.