Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What city hall needs is an integrity commissioner

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Sam Katz seems to have finally acknowledged what many of us have known all along.

He has a perception problem.

But that's not where his problems, or ours, end.

What's of bigger and broader concern is we have a city council that lacks a simple and effective way of sorting out reality from perception when it comes to conflict of interest. And, if there is one, how to deal with it.

Which is why city council -- and more importantly we, the citizens -- desperately need an integrity commissioner to teach boundaries and monitor behaviour. An ethics watchdog with a bark and, when necessary, some bite.

It took a civic scandal to prompt Toronto to create Canada's first municipal integrity commissioner back in 2004.

It was the work of that integrity commissioner that led to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford ending up in court recently to face conflict-of-interest allegations. Charges that could lead to his ouster from office.

That's not to suggest having an integrity commissioner would have led anyone to court in Winnipeg.

Ideally, having an integrity commissioner to offer advice to city council is supposed to help members avoid conflicts of interest.

Even perceived ones.

Our mayor shouldn't have needed an integrity commissioner to avoid something he now says he regrets, even if he doesn't believe he did anything wrong.

"When you are in the world of politics," he told reporters this week, "the sad statement is reality doesn't count."

The reality being that on March 29, 2012, Mayor Katz purchased an Arizona-based shell company called Duddy Enterprises LLC from Phil Sheegl, his close friend and the city's chief administrative officer. Katz paid Sheegl a buck for Duddy Enterprises, and that's where it would have ended except for some good investigative reporting.

Of course, if the mayor had paid more than 500 bucks he would have had been required by conflict-of-interest legislation to have the deal registered with the clerk of the council.

And he probably should have paid even more than that, as Katz suggested to reporters when, while saying he should have "exercised more caution," he added: "If I had to do this again I would have paid the $3,000, $4,000, found a lawyer, and boom, done that."

Most shell companies are mere paper entities, mailing addresses, that have no employees, goods or assets.

Instead, the value of shell companies such as Duddy Enterprises, which has been registered for a decade, comes from longevity that offers credibility for doing business.

But the actual value of Duddy Enterprises aside, one could question whether the shell company was essentially a gift that should have been reported to the clerk.

The kind of token one-dollar gift a father makes when his 16-year-old son wants to buy the family's old car that's just parked in the driveway going nowhere anyway.

Still, strictly speaking, the mayor appears to have done everything legally -- and the clerk of the council who is supposed to keep track of such dealings -- appears to have agreed. But, in a broader interpretation of ethics, the mayor buying a company such as Duddy Enterprises for a buck is like someone with balance problems trying to walk a tightrope blindfolded.

Almost everyone at city hall seems to be walking around blindfolded, though. At least they do when it's about the council's code of ethics, a council-voted document dating back to 1994 when even city council understood it needed to get its act together.

If anyone had remembered it even existed, council's code of ethics might have applied in the Duddy Enterprises deal. That because, in part, it says this: "Members must disclose any business or interest which may give rise to a reasonable apprehension of conflict."

That's a definition that looks made for a deal like Duddy Enterprises.

Which brings us back to the bigger, broader, issue; the need for an integrity commissioner for city council.

As it sits, Manitoba's ombudsman might be able to investigate the fire-hall swap case that started the alarm bells ringing at city hall last week, but not matters involving city council.

If it had enough evidence, city council could refer a conflict-of-interest case to the city clerk, who would then refer it to the Court of Queen's Bench.

But it would be much easier if Winnipeg city council had someone to gather that evidence, which is what an integrity commissioner does.

Mind you, it would be better if everyone on city council acted as if they didn't need someone to tell them what was right and what was wrong.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 B1

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