Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

As a businessman, he inspired; as a politician, he let us down

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At a time when this city desperately needed some concrete dust in its nose, Sam Katz delivered.

It was the spring of 1999 and Katz was almost giddy as he strolled through the nearly completed confines of his tiny, perfect ballpark.

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It had been a long and painful battle for the well-known entrepreneur to secure the government money to build the ballpark. But on that day, with a chill in the air and much work left to be done, Katz was the very essence of success.

A shameless and creative promoter who beat back the moaners and whiners of a moribund city to build something new and exciting. That was the Sam Katz so many Winnipeggers embraced in the 2004 mayoral byelection. An upbeat, optimistic, can-do man who, through the simple act of building a ballpark, had galvanized a reputation as a civic leader.

Now, as Katz finally confirms his decision not to run for re-election after 10 never-boring years in the mayor's chair, we are left with contrasting images: the man many of us voted for back in 2004; and the man we came to know after a decade in public office.

It would be fair to say we got more than we bargained for when voters overwhelmingly supported him.

Katz offered few specifics in that first campaign -- made possible by former mayor Glen Murray's decision to take a stab at federal politics -- other than a pledge to make Winnipeg a more successful, more efficient and (most importantly) more business-friendly place.

But Winnipeggers were quick to show their love for Katz the candidate. He was the anti-Murray, a self-styled businessman with none of his predecessors' arrogance or verbosity. He was the popular choice and remained in that role until this election year.

What are the hallmarks of the Katz era? Like all politicians, it's a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the truly ugly.

Under Katz's watch, there has been growth in the city's population and infrastructure investment and in spending on core services such as police and firefighting. There have also been lingering problems with poverty, violent crime and homelessness.

The problem is it's very difficult to credit or blame a mayor for specific good and bad things. The mayor does wield weight at city hall, but so many forces outside the control of civic government can determine the fate of municipalities.

For example, infrastructure investment did go up substantially during Katz's term, due in large part to decisions made by the provincial and federal governments to share more revenues.

As for crime and homelessness, these chronic social conditions are caused more by macroeconomic trends than civic policies.

Yes, it's true the city still has too many crappy arenas and pools, no rapid transit and too few underpasses. If we're being honest, we'd have to acknowledge every mayor during the past half-century failed to provide new recreational facilities, rapid transit or underpasses.

Can you condemn a politician who just performed as well -- or as poorly -- as his predecessors on these files? It's one of those debates with no end.

The real hallmarks of the Katz era, the issues on which he should be fairly judged, are related to a lack of good governance.

During Katz's time in office, city hall became a shadowy place where curious decisions were accompanied by threadbare justifications. Plans arose and then disappeared without warning or explanation. Decisions were made without appropriate study or consideration.

City hall also became a place where Katz, a man with a colourful and complex business career, shamelessly waded into decisions involving people and organizations with whom he had, and continued to have, direct business interests.

Katz sponsored plans or voted on allocations to entities with which he had been involved months or even weeks before. Or with people with whom he had done business his whole life. Or with people who granted him preferential terms on real estate transactions.

When confronted with the facts of these conflicts, Katz stood firm and, with clear eyes and a steady voice, denied any such conflict existed.

When asked about the sudden arrival or untimely demise of a key civic initiative, Katz skated around questions, leaving journalists and the public with no sense of what had happened.

Which brings us again to the contrast between the Katz we knew before politics and the Katz revealed during a decade in public office.

As a man who built a ballpark, Katz was a source of inspiration to a city in desperate need of hope.

As a mayor, Katz showed himself to be a man whose success came at the expense of many others, including the voters of Winnipeg.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 A4

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