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Lest we forget: Katz was at Nov. 11 service

Could wreath-laying signal future?

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We are told the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. By this measurement, we can deduce Mayor Sam Katz is one intensely sane individual.

On Sunday, Katz attended a Remembrance Day ceremony at the Winnipeg Convention Centre. A big-city mayor attending a gathering like this would not normally be that newsy. Except last year, Katz did not attend Nov. 11 services. When it was learned he was at his vacation home in Phoenix, well, the poppies really hit the fan.

Had Katz missed Nov. 11 this year, there were two likely explanations: He was thumbing his nose at those who criticized him last year, or he had more or less decided not to run for re-election, so who cares? The latter may seem like a pretty long bow to draw, but Katz-watchers will tell you what this mayor does and when he does it is fertile ground from which to deduce his master plan.

The frequency of his public appearances, especially in the evening and on weekends, has always been a barometer of Katz's interest in the office. In the months prior to the 2010 election, Katz attended religious ceremonies, ribbon cuttings and photo opportunities that, previously, he would have been happy to miss. This, his handlers said, was a new work ethic brought on by a spirited challenge from former MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis. Unfortunately, it didn't last long.

A recent story by the CBC found Katz took nearly five weeks of vacation in the year following re-election, by far and away the most taken by a Canadian mayor. In fact, Katz has been away from the city and city business so much, it becomes newsworthy when he actually shows up at a public event.

Personal appearances notwithstanding, speculation about the mayor's future is at an all-time high right now. Having been drawn into several high-profile controversies, the mayor and many of his loyalists -- including chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl -- are reeling. He has been ripped for buying an Arizona shell company from Sheegl for a nominal amount. Then, it was learned Katz had purchased a million-dollar Phoenix home from an executive at real-estate developer Shindico, a company that has both a long relationship with the mayor and a veritable stranglehold on the city's real estate business.

At the same time these stories simmer, there are allegations of impropriety related to the construction of new fire and paramedic stations by Shindico. Those deals are being reviewed by the city auditor. Katz has not been directly implicated, but his relationship with Shindico president Sandy Shindleman has drawn the mayor into the broader deliberations.

Now, all over the city, politicos of both the professional and hobbyist persuasion are desperate to know if Katz will run for re-election in 2014. His willingness to stay in Winnipeg and conduct mayoral business in person, on a weekend no less, certainly suggests that at the very least, he's keeping his options open.

No politician will be explicit about what he or she will do two years from now. Even those who are near locks to keep their names on ballots rarely, if ever, reveal their ultimate plans. Consider the recent stealthy announcement by then Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty. Many wondered if he would run again given the litany of scandals facing his government, but hardly anyone saw a resignation coming.

Katz has been very careful not to tip his hand one way or the other. A frequent supporter of term limits, Katz has several times suggested two full terms in office is enough. However, at the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce's state of the city address in March, Katz said he would stay until he gets a new, fair infrastructure-funding deal from the province.

"I won't quit until that's accomplished," he said.

The obvious point to make here is when Katz made that comment, he had not yet faced a new batch of controversies around his relationships with Sheegl, Shindleman and Shindico. The audit on the fire-and-paramedic-hall replacement program, along with a broader review of other real estate transactions, may take years to be completed. Even so, it's hard to believe it won't be done before the fall of 2014, when Winnipeggers go back to the polls to elect a mayor. That audit may well be a deciding factor in Katz's future.

In many ways, Katz has never had it so good. He draws a decent salary as mayor and continues to derive income from his Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball team. He has power, profile and -- notwithstanding the battering he has taken recently -- respect. Apparently, things are so good that he can purchase without the help of a bank a million-dollar home in Phoenix that, thanks to a forgiving electorate and robust airline schedules, he is able to visit frequently.

When you consider all that, having to lay a wreath once a year seems like such a small price to pay.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 13, 2012 A4

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