The political future of Winnipeg's mayor is now back in the hands of the courts as three top judges mull if a lower-court colleague was correct in dismissing a conflict of interest case over a taxpayer-funded staff Christmas party held at a restaurant Sam Katz then owned.
The legal saga of Joe Chan versus Katz was heard by Manitoba's top court today as the restaurant manager pressed on in his quest to see Katz removed from office, claiming Katz violated provincial conflict of interest legislation for municipal governments.
Manitoba's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act (MMCIA) states a willful breach of its provisions shall result in the offending party's seat being vacated.
Chan is appealing an April 5 ruling from Court of Queen's Bench Justice Brenda Keyser in which he came out the loser.
Keyser found the MMCIA didn't apply to the December 2010 party held at Hu's Asian Bistro, tossed out Chan's request for a declaration Katz should be removed from office and ordered him to fork over $10,000 in court costs to Katz.
This morning, Chan's lawyer, David Matas, argued Keyser made key legal errors and her decision shouldn't stand.
Matas argued a "reasonable person" would be able to see Katz held influence over the decision to hold the $3,084.35 city Christmas bash, even if the event and subsequent payment was organized and carried out by his office staff.
"He knew it was happening at his restaurant," Matas told the court. "Whether he told them to do it, or told them, 'don't do it,' it strikes me as a non-matter in terms of influence," Matas said. "Often employees try to please their bosses… try to anticipate what their bosses would like."
The conflict of interest was "clear-cut, even blatant," Matas charged.
Katz's lawyer, Robert Tapper, however, said decision-making over the party had nothing to do with city council or committee business or Katz's duty to the public and therefore the legislation does not apply.
"The decision of where to have a meal is not a matter of public duty," Tapper said. Also, there was no evidence to show Katz was directly involved in planning the party or directing staffers about where it should be held.
"It's absurd to think he would be involved in every decision made by an underling," argued Tapper. Keyser made no "palpable or over-riding error" in her decision to quash Chan's suit, he said. "The event is a trivial matter."
Court of Appeal Justices Marc Monnin, Diana Cameron and William Burnett reserved their decision to a later, unknown date.
Katz was not present in court for the hearing. Chan, however, sat next to Coun. Harvey Smith, leaving with him after the hearing concluded.