Former Gimli mayor’s fall four years in the making
The October 2018 municipal election in Gimli serves as lesson to incumbents and those who would seek elected office. Take nothing for granted. More than that: Do what you said you would do, rather than caving to established norms and structures.
Randy Woroniuk, the incumbent mayor, and incumbent councillors Danny Luprypa and Peter Peiluck went down to defeat in many ways, chiefly because they did not deliver.
What did the once-mighty trio fail to understand in the mood of the Gimli electorate? Whatever it was -- and it can be put down to many factors – what seems clear is that the disposition of voters had changed in just four short years. Each of the defeated three incumbents had, unwittingly, deftly designed their encounter with their electoral destiny.
This is (part of) that story.
Then-mayor Randy Woroniuk enjoys some banter with the gallery.
— Jim Mosher File May 2017
Randy Woroniuk lost his bid for the mayoralty in Gimli last fall. In retrospect, he may have defeated himself.
Social media was a significant driver that paved the way for Lynn Greenberg’s triumphal return to the mayor’s chair. Greenberg had served one term as mayor 2010-2014. His campaign team’s deft use of Facebook and other social media platforms helped Greenberg.
The efforts of Greenberg’s campaign team notwithstanding, Woroniuk had failed to impress electors – so much so, he was the dark horse who bled votes away from second-place finisher DJ Sigmundson who fell to Greenberg by just 228 votes.
Greenberg is back in the mayor’s chair in large measure because Woroniuk (2014-2018) mishandled his four years in office and siphoned votes from Sigmundson. Woroniuk’s copious missteps led inexorably to his ouster. He was not only unsuccessful in a three-way race, he came in at the bottom of the pack, well behind both Greenberg and Sigmundson.
Why was Woroniuk so convincingly defeated?
A recently-retired Natural Resources officer when he was elected in the fall of 2014, Woroniuk seemed an amiable sort but, even for that, a man with an edge. He did not endure fools easily – or those he thought fools. He would show himself to be dismissive of people very early on. He, after all, was the authority in all matters.
Early-on, he introduced a push to enhance decorum in chambers. He insisted that no one in the gallery should wear a hat or even a toque. There was also the matter of instructing thinking adults to turn off their cell phones and refrain from talking among themselves – even in whispers.
One had the distinct impression of being in a courtroom, where the mayor spent some time as an enforcement person.
It was quaint in the beginning, of sort of kindergarten revisited, still the mayor’s style seemed thoroughly out of synch. A cattle farmer would be sternly instructed to remove his cap – this in a community that is more rural than urban. But people were obliged to play along, and did so with surprising, if credulous, acceptance.
The mayor was often impatient with people with whom he disagreed, councillors and delegations alike.
All of this can be put down to Woroniuk being a stickler, a rules guy accustomed to having his way in the woods and on the lake. Yes, he was awkward, not as polished and circumspect as his predecessors but, to many, entirely likeable.
Rather than his style, what became clear over time was his need to assert his authority. There wasn’t a pat on the back that he refused to give himself – from being the motive force in establishing a chamber of commerce in Gimli to finally reining in dogs on the Gimli Beach boardwalk.
Well, the dog bit did not exactly go his way, though when a compromise solution was eventually achieved, he took credit for that.
Woroniuk’s unilateral decision to ban dogs on the storied main beach boardwalk caught most off-guard. Journalists and citizens only learned of the ‘decision’ after a story in the Winnipeg Free Press May 22, 2016. The mayor, who was being interviewed about Gimli Beach’s coveted ‘Blue Flag’ designation, decided to expand his talking points, it seems extemporaneously.
Gimli would lose its ‘Blue Flag’ designation later because concentrations of bacteria in the swimming water was considered un-Blue.
The dog ban and the un-Blue-ing of Gimli Beach were not discussed in council’s public sessions – the latter only being revealed after a reporter’s questions.
Woroniuk ran a tight ship, though it was more like a submarine rigged for silent running. If you didn’t ask just the right and properly-framed question, you would not know the first thing about what council and administration were doing. It should be noted that junior staff were usually most helpful, though the unexpected departure of assistant chief administrative officer Kristin Strachan put something of a damper on the flow of information.
Plumbing the depths of council’s private meetings and the conclusions of those confabs became an nearly impossible task. In the absence of solid information, people, working on the crumbs from here and there, began to speculate.
There was, for instance, some sort of behind-the-scenes deal in the works with Diageo, the Gimli distillers of world-appreciated Crown Royal. What that deal entailed was never publicly released, though a reporter managed to get a glimpse of the inner workings of the matter after poring over own-sourced data and obtaining redacted information from the municipality after a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request.
The deal, we learned, was to allow Diageo to deliver most of its effluent to the Gimli Wastewater Treatment lant in Gimli Industrial Park. It would be a good deal for both the municipality and the distiller, we were told. The niggling problem was whether the treatment plant could accommodate the industrial waste. There was no credible answer but the distiller’s liquid waste began to flow into the plant in December 2015.
Not to worry, the about 400 residents of Aspen Park, a nearby condominium park east of the sewage treatment plant, would get a whiff of what was going on. The Interlake Enterprise was first to report in January 2018 that there had been an unforeseen incident at the treatment plant when a planned shutdown of a key piece of equipment went awry. That accident – and there was no explanation as to when it happened though ‘the why’ would eventually be put down to corrosion of pipes in the plant’s sequencing batch reactor – caused the release of noxious fumes.
Sulphur dioxide, a gas associated with sewage treatment, was released into the environment. The odour affected nearby Aspen residents, particularly those with respiratory problems. Carried on the wind, the pervasive smell also travelled as far west as Fraserwood and east to Gimli’s Lake Winnipeg suburbs.
In all, it was a fiasco superbly mishandled by council, administration, public works staff and the consultant hired to oversee the work.
Who would take the fall?
Woroniuk because he was mayor; Luprypa because he was both the public works committee chairman and liaison for the area that includes Aspen Park; and deputy mayor Peiluck who, as did his colleagues, left it to Luprypa to sort out the problem.
Did the electorate conclude the three had been derelict in their duty to inform and incompetent to address an immediate problem that had overtones of a public health risk? It may have been, for some, a clincher in the 2018 election. But there was likely more public disaffection with what had become a distant, autocratic regime under Woroniuk.
What can be said of Woroniuk’s fall from grace was, however, far more granular and visceral.
MAYOR ABANDONS HIS BASE
Rewind to his mayoral campaign in the lead-up to the October 2014 election.
Woroniuk had won the support of representatives from Gimli’s service groups who had for years worked on a plan to build a multiplex on property near the existing recreation centre.
As initially conceived then refined, the multiplex would include an indoor pool and a wellness centre, among other health-building initiatives to come later or a wee bit down the road. Full-on costs were originally pegged at tens of millions but were pared to just under $20 million.
In any event, the Greenberg council (2010-2014) rejected what they saw as a costly enterprise, one that the tax base could not possibly sustain. All members of council signed a letter which was mailed just days before the 2014 election to Winnipeg residents who owned property in Gimli. Greenberg would go down to defeat, even though he claimed the Winnipeg vote. Woroniuk picked up the slack at polls in Gimli.
The Greenberg council’s ruse was thwarted – for a time.
At 139 votes, Woroniuk’s plurality represented a slim victory, likely due in part to the support he received from members of the community’s service clubs and their wide network of business and personal friends. The service groups favoured Woroniuk because he had vowed to reopen the multiplex file and give it – they thought – a favourable view.
But in March 2016, the Woroniuk council introduced its alternative: an outdoor swimming pool, grandly called an aquatic centre. It was a major blow to the multiplex vision, which died as volunteer organizers quit the effort, many vowing not to support the outdoor pool.
The pool opened in May 2018, more than a year behind schedule. The final tab converged on $2.4 million, we were told. The pool had been projected to cost $1.5 million when it was first introduced. That price tag, as it was later learned, did not include buildings for equipment and staff; toys and other structures for the pool proper; and many of the accoutrements a reasonable person may have expected of a pool.
Was this all a betrayal of the faith placed in the mayor? Or was it, as Woroniuk’s apologists may aver, that heavy is the burden of leadership?
Did Woroniuk abandon his base? Did he fall into the group-think that often betrays otherwise high-functioning elected bodies?
Whatever the answers to the many questions that may dog Woroniuk and his mayoralty, a few things are crystal clear. His one term will remain an object lesson for those who seek elected office.
People pay attention to details which, taken as a whole, can articulate deeper patterns of thought and action.
It’s not about image or authority or legacy. It’s about doing, to the best of your ability, what you said you would do – being true to yourself and those who support you.
LUPRYPA AND PEILUCK SHOWN THE DOOR
Always accommodating to interviews, Luprypa and Peiluck were nevertheless viewed through different lenses. Broad-minded Luprypa, a former high school guidance counsellor, could see wide and far. Peiluck, a successful farmer and chair of finance, was sometimes narrowly focussed on the ledger; something of a detail man who professed his duty to protect the fiscal bottom line.
It can be argued that Luprypa and Peiluck fell to a change in the electoral mood. Perhaps they were just collateral damage.
They were both people with political experience, Luprypa amassing 20 years as councillor, Peiluck two four-year terms. That may have been their undoing. Electors in their sublime wisdom were looking for new blood, which they found in Peter Holfeuer and Cody Magnusson, polls show.
On the flip side, voters chose to renew the tenures of two-term councilman Richard Petrowski and the sometimes edgy and outspoken first-termer Thora Palson.
The soft-spoken Petrowski proved himself thoughtful and possessing of a graceful, non-confrontational approach to council business and his colleagues. He wasn’t a pushover. He could be provocative and assertive occasionally. Petrowski, for instance, consistently voted against the outdoor pool and payments related to it, until the fact of its construction obliged him to play the game.
Palson, the lone woman on council in her first term and now alone in her second, was more strategic in the sometimes chess game of local politics. She overcame being arbitrarily removed from her originally-assigned portfolio of public health and safety to become increasingly assertive. She took her area liaison responsibilities to heart.
Luprypa and Peiluck had all the creds but their ambitions may have vaulted beyond the electorate’s reach.
In all, best to everyone who let their names stand.
In addition to those named in this story, we give a shout-out to councillor candidates Marilyn Johnson, Daphne Markusson, Tammy Taylor and Catherine Strong. Thanks.