The fate of Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz has gone back to the court of public opinion after he survived a major legal challenge, meaning he can remain in office.
Katz was given the green light Friday to keep his job after a judge ruled the Manitoba Municipal Conflict of Interest Act didn't apply to a disputed Christmas party that landed him in court. The December 2010 bash was held at Hu's Asian Bistro on Ellice Avenue. It was hosted by Katz's office and involved city councillors and department heads. The bill for the event, paid for with taxpayer funds, was $3,084.35. The mayor owned the restaurant at the time.
But Katz didn't escape the proceedings unscathed, as Justice Brenda Keyser issued a stinging rebuke of his conduct.
"Mr. Katz has exhibited bad political and ethical behaviour," Keyser said in handing down her ruling. She added Winnipeggers will be able to give their own opinion of Katz at the next civic election in 2014.
Katz did not attend the court hearing but held a press conference at city hall to respond to the court decision. He said "It's now history and we move forward."
He refused to respond to Keyser's specific comments. "The end result is it's not a conflict of interest and that's the bottom line," Katz said.
Keyser also had strong words Friday for Winnipeg restaurateur Joe Chan, who brought the case to court by filing a declaration last year that Katz was in conflict. Keyser ordered Chan to pay $10,000 in Katz's legal fees, essentially saying he had wasted everyone's time by filing the legal motion. She said the provincial act was aimed at politicians who try to confer a benefit, which she found didn't occur in this case.
But she added even if the act did apply, she wouldn't have found Katz in violation because it would be "utterly disproportionate" to what transpired. Keyser also cited the high cost of having an abrupt re-election if Katz were to be ousted.
"I'm really disappointed in the outcome. Nobody can stop this mayor," Chan said outside court following the verdict. He plans to speak with his lawyer, David Matas, about a possible appeal. He also said it's clear the legislation needs to be revamped if it doesn't apply to a situation such as this.
Katz's lawyer, Robert Tapper, said his client has been through an "angst-filled several months" worry about his future. Had Keyser decided Katz deliberately broke provincial rules, Katz would have lost his seat as mayor. If she had found he inadvertently skirted the law, he would have kept his job but could be ordered to repay the money.
"There was no attempt here by the mayor to exercise influence," Tapper said Friday on the steps of the Law Courts. He accused the media and public of being out to get Katz and isn't worried about the next election.
"The city has bigger fish to fry," said Tapper. "The voters will do what the voters will want."
Tapper claims the case has required him to put in about $25,000 worth of work on Katz's behalf and asked Keyser to order Chan to repay the full amount. Matas asked for a maximum of $1,000 in costs. Tapper said the $10,000 award is one of the highest he can recall in a civil case. "It's a real message to this guy," he said.
Tapper said Chan -- who manages the Cathay House Restaurant and has worked for Daniel McIntyre Coun. Harvey Smith -- clearly had his own agenda. "This was not public zeal which motivated Mr. Chan. His credibility is zero," he said.
Tapper had asked for the entire case to be dismissed on technicalities, based on the fact Chan made what he called legal procedural errors. In particular, Tapper said Chan broke a specific court rule that prohibits him from publicly speaking about a settlement offer.
Tapper told court Chan contacted Natalie Pollock -- who lives in the same building as him -- and made comments about a settlement offer in violation of court rules. His motion brief states Natalie Pollock and her brother, Ron Pollock, gave sworn evidence Chan "revealed the offer, lied about its contents (as to it being a 'substantial financial offer') and then attempted to intimidate the affiants (those who make an affidavit) into giving a false story that they learned about the offer from city hall."
Matas argued it was Natalie Pollock who tried to pry information from Chan. Keyser said Friday even if that's true, Chan should have kept his mouth shut.
"His comments were inappropriate. Mr. Chan certainly doesn't come to court with clean hands," said Keyser. Still, she dismissed Tapper's bid to toss the case on technicalities and ruled instead on the merits.
Matas alleged the mayor knew Hu's Asian Bistro was his restaurant, knew the invitations for the party came from his office, knew the city was paying for the party and he was aware of the conflict-of-interest rules.
Keyser ultimately agreed with Tapper's written legal response, which said the provincial conflict rules would not apply to a Christmas party, as it is not a council or committee meeting where the financial interest of the mayor conflicts with his elected duties. The motion brief also said Katz did not direct the city to make the payment. Katz believes the payment for the party was made out of the mayor's office by an office manager or through protocol.
-- with files from Jen Skerritt