Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Katz's masterful manipulation

His imminent exit the ultimate punchline

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A train wreck.

When discussing the performance of government on a matter of public policy, the metaphor implies the sudden and violent cessation of progress, a derailing of priorities and destruction of process and order.

And a train wreck is exactly what we have right now at Winnipeg City Hall.

Wednesday morning was to be the day councillors, journalists and the general public got to see details of a long-awaited audit into city real estate transactions. The audit, undertaken by the city auditor with assistance from consulting firm EY, formerly called Ernst and Young, was prompted by concerns about whether the relationship between Mayor Sam Katz, former CAO Phil Sheegl and prominent private developers had skewed the city's real estate deals.

Rather than a clear accounting of those deals, observers at city hall were treated to a masterful symphony of misdirection and obfuscation with Katz at the baton the whole time.

Led by Katz, members of city council launched a vitriolic attack on the final EY report and city auditor Brian Whiteside. They moaned and wailed about the report's methodology and the failure to interview key figures, most notably former CAO Sheegl.

Some of those concerns are valid. The final report released Wednesday is chock full of detail without much in the way of explanation about who was responsible for the transgressions so rife in the city's real estate transactions.

However, the report's flaws hardly justify the deliberate bid by some on council to obscure what was in the report by harping on what wasn't there. This was nothing less than a mockery of transparency and accountability.

Councillors got a special briefing on the report Wednesday morning, at which most of the time was spent debating whether it was an actual audit, which council had asked for, or merely a management review.

This was a brilliant strategy by Katz, who led the attack on the report, to distract council. Rather than digging into its findings, councillors were convinced to retreat and reschedule a final, public debate on the report for July 9.

After that, executive policy committee met and discussed peripheral issues related to the report. However, during all this posturing and semantic wrangling, the report itself had not actually been made public.

As a result, when Katz finally faced reporters in the early afternoon, none of the journalists asking him questions had actually seen the report. It was finally released on the city's website late in the afternoon, but only as an attachment to the EPC agenda. In other words, it had been tucked away deep within the dank recesses of the city's digital catacombs.

To believe this was all just coincidence, you'd have to believe key civic bureaucrats in charge of communication and administration were complete idiots. And we're led to believe they're actually quite bright.

Regardless of the report's failings, a clear, overarching conclusion can be drawn: This is not a level playing field. This is a city where procedural shortcuts, policy breaches and favouritism are the rule, not the exception.

City properties are sold without proper valuations. Select private developers get inside information on big deals. Lucrative work is awarded to preferred developers without tender. Commissions are increased without proper documentation. And the city has a habit of acquiring land from private interests at inflated prices and selling off other land at well below market value.

These concerns are clearly outlined in the EY report. Council's decision to wait another week to digest the report before fully debating it in public is a cowardly act that raises questions about the collective intelligence of this city's local government.

It also reveals an ugly truth about city hall: Although there are some smart and thoughtful people on council, they are no match for the sheer manipulative brilliance of the mayor.

As mayor, Katz is administratively and symbolically responsible for the ugliness that is outlined in the EY report. And yet, he sailed through this difficult day without a single bead of sweat appearing on his forehead.

At the very least, there should have been a blush of contrition when he faced reporters Wednesday. But there was none of that. According to Katz, he was a mere bystander, a hapless elected official who knew nothing of what was going on behind the scenes and who could do nothing to put things right. In other words, if mistakes were made, Katz will assure you he was just as much a victim as anyone else.

Instead of facing voters and answering difficult questions about why so much favouritism was shown to some from Winnipeg's development community -- people who have personal and professional connections to the mayor -- he has decided to leave.

He has, however, left behind a lasting reminder of his time in office. A train wreck.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2014 A4

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