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Bartley Kives

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Mayor, you must do better

Katz counterparts in other cities in conflict trouble

For 34 years, Mississauga, Ont., has known no other mayor than Hazel McCallion. Her lawyers were in court Wednesday to defend against allegations she pushed for a real estate deal that may have saved her son's company $11 million.

Joe Fontana is both the mayor of London, Ont., and a former Liberal MP. On Oct. 28, he will appear in court to defend against a fraud charge stemming from a $1,700 cheque he signed toward the end of his 18 years in Ottawa.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was nearly kicked out of office last fall over a conflict-of-interest allegation. After a successful appeal, he was denied a $116,000 claim for court costs this week and may yet wind up before the Supreme Court of Canada.

In Quebec, the mayors of Montreal and Laval resigned last year in the face of corruption allegations. And here in Winnipeg, relatively far from the glare of the national media, thrice-elected Mayor Sam Katz, having served nine years in office, faces the loss of his seat over a decision to spend about $3,000 of taxpayers' money on a Christmas party at restaurant he owned.

If you're in a charitable mood, you might say Canadian mayors are simply having a lousy year. If you're more of a nihilist, you might wonder why the squeaky-clean mayors of Calgary and Ottawa are so boring.

But for the vast majority of us, who go about our day-to-day business without encountering ethical questions more significant than whether to waste a few minutes of company time on Twitter, the ability of so many mayors to wind up in trouble is baffling.

Notwithstanding the widespread mistrust of elected officials in the nearly four decades since Richard Nixon proclaimed he was not a crook, the vast majority of people who serve as municipal politicians are decent, honest people. The notion all politicians inevitably become moustache-twirling villains is nothing more than a simplistic cliché.

But the widespread prevalence of the mistrust in government means politicians have an obligation to go above and beyond our minimum expectations and actually exceed them. This does not mean politicians are not permitted to be grumpy, dishevelled or even occasionally drunk in public. It just means they have to observe all rules and also be seen to observe them.

When it comes to conflict of interest, that means taking every reasonable step to avoid not just the offence, but the perception of it. The consequence of being anything less than exceptional, as difficult as that sounds, involves diminishing the esteem of public office itself.

In Toronto, where Ford routinely dismisses criticism, regaining respect for the mayor's office is a lost cause until the next election. In the Montreal area, where a corruption probe continues, it may take a generation.

The courts will soon decide the fates of the mayors of Mississauga, London and Winnipeg. But as many have argued before, it would be bizarre for Sam Katz to lose his seat over a Christmas party.

Yes, it was stupid to allow a taxpayer-funded party to take place at a restaurant he owned. But this was hardly the only move he's made to diminish his office's esteem.

In 2005, Katz took part in a vote to approve an Esplanade Riel tenant who had separate business ties to him at the time. Given the fact Salisbury House was the best and only option, he had no reason not to recuse himself.

Later the same year, Katz took part in a vote to pay out Walker Theatre creditors who previously paid him out. That wasn't a conflict either, but it was equally unnecessary.

From 2005 to 2008, Katz served as both Winnipeg's mayor and president of Riverside Park Management while the two entities were engaged in a rent dispute. While that was no conflict in the legal sense, it certainly posed an ethical dilemma.

Finally, in 2012, the mayor bought an Arizona shell company from the city's chief administrative officer, then sold it back a few weeks later. Only the first sale was followed by an acknowledgement elected officials should do better.

No matter what a judge decides on Friday, this mayor is guilty of one thing: not making enough effort to be better than the rest of us, whether we are grocery-store clerks or cardiologists or even lowly journalists.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 4, 2013 A4

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