Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Chewing out the mayor's poor attitude

Learning a lesson from littering

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This story seems far from the crack-cocaine controversy that has dogged Toronto Mayor Rob Ford of late. And it is.

Yet, in its own way, a litter-conscious young mother's holding Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz accountable for casually tossing a freshly chewed piece of gum on the ground is suggestive of the same issues faced by Ford. Questions of leadership, trust and accountability.

Except in this seemingly trivial case of a mayor committing a bylaw infraction, it has resulted in Sam Katz doing something uncharacteristic. Apologizing.

The problem is he still hasn't said sorry for something that troubled the 31-year-old woman who confronted him after watching Winnipeg's civic leader doing something many of us have thoughtlessly done since we were kids.

-- -- --

It was a week ago last Thursday I called the mayor's press secretary, Rhea Yates, with a citizen's concern. Earlier that day, I had received an email from Free Press reader Lawrence Baltus. "I just got off the phone with my wife Marilynn, who is very upset at the way she was treated by Mr. Sam Katz within the last 30 minutes," Baltus began.

He asked if I would call her.

When I reached Marilynn Kullman, she described how she and her six-month-old son Ezra had been in the Fort Rouge Leisure Centre parking lot that day when she saw the mayor get out of his van, take a piece of gum from his mouth and toss it into some nearby grass. Kullman was incensed, but she said she chose her words carefully.

"Excuse me sir, would you mind picking up the gum that you dropped."

Kullman recalled the mayor's response this way.

"Oh, it's just a piece of lint."

And then he breezed by Kullman and disappeared into the leisure centre. But Kullman refused to be "brushed off" as she put it. Littering, Kullman pointed out, is a bylaw offence and in her view the mayor should be setting an example. So she pursued both the mayor and the issue inside the leisure centre.

The mayor was involved in an event there and, when she made known why she was there, a man who identified himself as a city employee accompanied her outside and picked up the gum.

In an email that same day to press secretary Rhea Yates -- who was with Katz when it happened -- I outlined Kullman's allegations, asked for a comment from the mayor and added a quote from Kullman that summed up why she was so concerned.

"It's just a piece of gum, but it's not a piece of gum. It's an attitude."

What Kullman meant was that tossing the gum -- and then not being forthright about what he had done -- reflected his attitude to our city, its citizens and the perception many have about how he performs his responsibilities to both.

But what bothered Kullman more than the thoughtless tossing of the gum was Katz's denying what he had done. And then walking away as if he had done nothing wrong.

The mayor never did respond to my request for a comment. But earlier this week, a letter dated May 16, the day of the incident, was hand-delivered to the Fort Rouge Leisure Centre.

It was from the mayor and it was meant for the woman who had confronted him in the parking lot: "I apologize for having a moment of carelessness, but I assure you that I do take littering seriously and I encourage all Winnipeggers to do the same."

It's worth noting, though, there was no mention in the letter of the words "gum" or "lint."

But what Kullman was most concerned with was he didn't apologize for what she was most disturbed by. "The natural ease" with which the mayor initially was able to be dishonest, in the moment, about what he had done. I offered the mayor an opportunity to address Kullman's concern in an email to his press secretary Friday afternoon.

Later that afternoon, the mayor's office finally responded to my third email in nine days. But without addressing Kullman's real concern. The mayor's attitude.

-- -- --

I suppose one could say Kullman should be satisfied with his apology for his "moment of carelessness."

She's not. But I am. I can't recall Katz apologizing for any of the litany of far more serious issues that have dogged him. How ironic that, after all these years and all those controversies, it took a piece of gum to finally make something stick.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2013 B1

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