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A sad state of affairs

Katz better hope for forgiveness

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Mayor Sam Katz delivers his annual state of the city address Friday at the convention centre.


Mayor Sam Katz delivers his annual state of the city address Friday at the convention centre. Photo Store

According to Winnipeg's mayor, "people in this city are among the kindest, most caring people in Canada."

They also better be the most forgiving, if Sam Katz has any hope of holding onto his job this fall.

In recent years, Winnipeg's mayor has tumbled through a cascading series of political disasters, many of his own making, and still managed to emerge with a reasonable facsimile of charm.

This veneer of indestructibility has now washed off. Over the past five months alone, Katz has reeled from a scathing fire-paramedic station audit, police headquarters cost overruns, brown summer water, lousy winter snow-clearing, bursting water mains and now an unprecedented number of Winnipeg properties with frozen waterlines.

At the end of a week in which hundreds of home and business owners pleaded with the city to restore their water, Katz was forced to attempt something impossible. He had to deliver a state of the city speech that offered hope for the future without glossing over Winnipeg's inability to manage the most basic of services right now.

Standing before a standoffish Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce audience on Friday, Katz appeared more vulnerable than he has at any other point since he was first elected in 2004.

Things are never great when you have to begin a speech by acknowledging roughly one in 270 Winnipeg properties doesn't have water, or that the city built a fire-paramedic station on land owned by developers who used to be your business partners, or that a police headquarters built in order to save money is now $73 million over budget.

"It would be ridiculous to ignore those kinds of things," Katz told reporters after his address. "This isn't something we want to hide. We want make sure people are aware of the fact we're dealing with the problems, give the good and bad and move on."

How does an incumbent mayor whose popularity barely inches into the double digits move on? In front of the chamber audience, Katz tried to play up Winnipeg's appeal as a place to do business.

He spoke of the reconstruction of Assiniboine Park, the opening of the human rights museum and an increase in the number of people living downtown.

He announced a summer concert at Central Park, a $1-million donation to help reopen Sherbrook Pool and the pending release of a poverty-reduction strategy.

He even earned an actual cheer for drawing attention to Red River College's expanding downtown campus. "When I look across the street from the council building, I see the Union Bank Tower," said Katz, referring to the college's restoration of a Main Street heritage building.

Now if Katz looked in the other direction from his office, he'd see the Civic Centre Parkade standing empty on King Street, awaiting a wrecking ball, next to a Public Safety Building facing an uncertain future.

The mismanagement of city facilities has been so severe under Katz's leadership, the public is already primed to be cynical when the city struggles with forces it cannot control, such as the cold that has blown up water mains and frozen the soil two metres deep.

"I don't think anybody, when it comes to brown water or frozen pipes, is going to blame any elected official," Katz told reporters.

He is out of touch. Fairly or otherwise, residents of this city no longer trust their municipal government to do practically anything. And a big reason for this skepticism is the failure of Katz's city hall to handle capital-procurement processes it could have controlled.

Sensing the mayor's weakness, five out of the six candidates vying to replace him this fall wasted no time complaining to reporters about Katz's inability to explain a vision for Winnipeg.

Judy Wasylycia-Leis, Gord Steeves, Paula Havixbeck, Scott Fielding and Brian Bowman all took turns savaging Katz's speech. Only John Orlikow chose not to nibble on Katz's political carcass.

But even those who did were careful to separate the mayor from the state of his city. "While there are some very good things happening, very little of it is attributable to city hall," said Bowman.

Yet there remains a tangible sense Katz is still considering another mayoral run. He acknowledged as much at the end of his address.

"Sometimes, when the slings and arrows are flying, people call me and say, 'Sam, why do you do it?' "

His answer: To provide hope for his three kids and Winnipeg children as a whole.

Yes, Sam Katz wants to be the mayor who inspires hope for the future. It's safe to say he was this mayor in 2004.

Whether he can be that person again in 2014 will depend on how much Winnipeggers are willing to forget the decade in between.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2014 A8

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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