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Province could end city hall's ethics problems

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Integrity. All the mayoral candidates in this fall's civic election are promising to deliver more of it.

It's not hard to see why. Soon-to-be-former-mayor Sam Katz will leave a trail of ethical and moral transgressions in his wake when he retires from politics this fall. The crescendo to date was a decision by Manitoba Justice to forward three audits of city real estate deals to the RCMP for consideration. But what does "more integrity" really mean, and how exactly are we going find more of it at city hall, an institution that has shown nothing less than utter contempt for the concept?

Several candidates have already delivered their ideas for improving integrity, transparency and accountability.

Judy Wasylycia-Leis wants to convert the civic auditor general into a new, enhanced agency that would investigate legal and ethical conflicts. Brian Bowman promised less secrecy in debates and decision-making at city hall. Robert-Falcon Ouellette would create a conflict-of-interest commissioner to advise council on rules and laws.

There are some promising nuggets in these proposals. Unfortunately, this is a very big problem that requires a very big solution; a solution that has so far evaded this crop of candidates.

Where can we turn? Local government is a creation of the provincial legislature. Provinces are also responsible for the laws needed to ensure responsible local government.

To date, however, the NDP government has been little more than a bystander to the chicanery at city hall. As concerns mounted about Katz and his relationship to certain developers, the province did nothing. Manitoba Justice did forward the real-estate audits to the RCMP. But the province has otherwise been unwilling to enter the maelstrom, concerned about political blowback from a fight with Katz and his allies.

The good news is this fall, following the civic vote, the province will have its best chance yet to deal with this issue. With no incumbent in the race, a new mayor with a clean slate will be taking over city hall. This is an opportunity to revamp provincial law and create a new office with new powers to ensure future transgressions are properly investigated.

The province could start with the Municipal Council Conflict of Interest Act, an outdated, incomplete, wholly inadequate joke of a law.

The law outlines a very limited number of potential conflicts of interest that are, in the modern context, desperately thin. It focuses mostly on elected officials doing business with people they know. However, if Katz proved anything, it is a definition like that does not even begin to cover the array of conflicts some politicians can conjure.

The current act does not contain details on where to make a complaint, or who or what should investigate that complaint. In fact, the words "investigate" and "prosecute" do not appear anywhere in the text of the act.

The only penalty for being found guilty is expulsion from office.

The consequence of a law like this is that only very few of the many ethical and moral concerns that arise over dealings involving municipal officials ever get the attention they deserve. Some do make their way to the office of the provincial auditor general; many more die when complainants realize there is nowhere, and no one, to turn to.

To understand just how useless this law really is, one need only look at the recent court battle between Katz and restaurateur Joe Chan.

Chan alleged a conflict of interest when the city paid to hold a staff party at a restaurant Katz owned at the time.

A Court of Queen's Bench judge rejected the complaint on the basis the law only applied to decisions of council. The Manitoba Court of Appeal disagreed with that opinion, but noted there was not enough evidence to prove Katz was directly involved in the decision to hold the party at his restaurant.

In the lower court decision, however, the judge also said Katz demonstrated "bad political and ethical behaviour." Unfortunately, the judge continued, the only penalty available -- being thrown out of office -- was "utterly disproportionate" for the alleged violation.

In the fall session of the legislature, which will be convened after the October civic elections, the province should table a modernized municipal conflict-of-interest law and create a new complaint and investigatory body to assess specific cases and prescribe penalties.

Post civic vote, the province would have the comfort of introducing these changes without having to comment on, or wade into, any specific charge against any specific politician.

Let's think of the possibilities.

A new mayor. A clean slate. A chance to ensure municipal politicians who want to bend rules, cut corners or otherwise take advantage of a vague, ineffective law are held to account.

That would ensure regardless of who becomes mayor in October, the citizens are the real winners.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2014 B1

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