Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Running out of time

At halfway mark of his third term, ONE THING IS CERTAIN: Katz won't romp to win if he decides to run again

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In one of the milestones politicians claim to regard as irrelevant, tomorrow marks the midpoint of Mayor Sam Katz's third and likely final term as Winnipeg's mayor.

Residents of this city will elect their next mayor and city council on Oct. 22, 2014. That gives Katz two more years in office, assuming he will not seek to remain in the office he has held since he was first elected in a June 2004 byelection.

Katz has said repeatedly he may in fact run again, noting his earlier support of city council term limits does not preclude the possibility of a fourth run for office.

In 2007, Katz backed a motion by the late River Heights Coun. Brenda Leipsic and St. James-Brooklands Coun. Scott Fielding to set a three-term limit at city council. But that vote died on the floor of council and Katz has since said he will run for office as long as he believes Winnipeggers still want him to lead.

Winning a fourth term will not come easy to Katz, who performed extremely well in his previous three mayoral races.

In the wide-open 2004 contest necessitated by the resignation of Glen Murray, Katz destroyed an impressive field of experienced competitors  — Dan Vandal, Al Golden, Mary Ann Mihychuk and Garth Steek included — thanks to his reputation as a successful entrepreneur, his popularity as the owner of the Winnipeg Goldeyes and his political status as a city hall outsider.

In the 2006 election, Katz faced little competition in a race devoid of well-organized and well-financed challengers. At the time, the sentiment in Winnipeg amounted to a desire to give the new guy a chance to show what he could do with a full term.

Katz faced a challenge in 2010, when former NDP MP and MLA Judy Wasylycia-Leis and the Canadian Union of Public Employees combined their respective name power and ground troops in an effort to unseat him. But JWL's presence in the race scared away centrist candidates and gave Katz a perfect opponent: a lifelong politician who could be characterized, fairly, as an old-school leftie.

As recently as 2010, Katz still possessed a tremendous amount of power at city hall, where he maintained a consensus among members of council's executive policy committee and saw almost all council votes go his way.

But this mayor no longer has anywhere near that sort of hegemonic control, due factors both within and outside his control.

For starters, Katz's once-universal popularity among the electorate appears to have been weakened by the inevitable need to raise revenues for the city in 2011, when frontage levies were boosted, and in 2012, when Winnipeg's long property tax freeze ended. Both decisions were logical, but some segments of the population mistook Katz's over-the-top election-time attack on JWL's tax-hike plan ("People should not have to lose their homes") for a pledge to avoid similar hikes of his own.

More dubiously on the policy front, Katz suffered this year from his decision to continue pushing for a private water-park subsidy. This directive famously crashed and burned this spring, when city staff trotted out a poorly conceived plan to build a kiddie attraction at The Forks, opposite the Canadian Museum for Human Rights -- and very close to Shaw Park, where the mayor's Goldeyes play. Katz's late realization he had to recuse himself from voting on the project also revealed the poor quality of his political and policy advice.

The water-park debacle opened the door for more public skepticism late this summer, when the fire-paramedic construction scandal came to light. The coming review of the construction of four new fire-paramedic stations, as well as the pending audit of major city real-estate transactions, all but guarantees a crisis-management mentality will surround his office well into 2014.

As one of the mayor's staunchest council allies recently said, Sam Katz is effectively a lame-duck politician. But he is not just the victim of political circumstance, or simply the target of the sort of ire voters inevitably direct toward all long-serving politicians.

Rather, Katz's repeated pattern of failing to understand what is expected of a person in his position has finally started to actually hurt him.

In February 2005, when Katz failed to recuse himself from voting for an Esplanade Riel tenant who at the time had separate business ties to the mayor, the public by and large did not care.

The public largely did not care in September 2005, when Katz failed to recuse himself from a council vote that compensated Walker Theatre creditors who previously paid him out.

The public largely did not care in 2008, when a plan to retroactively reduce the rent for a Goldeyes-controlled parking lot was approved by council following a three-year property-assessment battle between the city and the mayor's primary business.

The public largely did not care in 2011 when Katz told a group of reporters he was meeting with Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi rather than admit he spent the previous weekend at his second home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Katz's office maintains what he does in Arizona is none of the public's business.

Hence the mayor's continuing annoyance in 2012 after it was revealed he: A) purchased an Arizona shell company from the city's chief administrative officer, his friend Phil Sheegl; B) Soon sold it back to Sheegl; and C) Purchased a Scottsdale home from a Winnipeg developer's sister-in-law, paying $1 million in cash for the property.

The mayor cannot credibly blame any of this on the media, despite his claims of being the victim of a "witch hunt" or various "innuendoes." Avoiding the appearance of conflict is the duty of all elected officials, especially in this cynical age.

Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe Katz will step down as mayor before his term ends, as he has never backed away from a political fight in his life. But his ability to mount an effective campaign in 2014 has been impaired severely.

Before Katz's current troubles began, Fielding, the councillor for St. James, made it known he will run for mayor in 2014 if the race has no incumbent. Deputy Mayor Justin Swandel (St. Norbert) has also left the door open.

Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt has expressed mayoral ambitions in the past. So has Gord Steeves, the former St. Vital councillor.

Wasylycia-Leis has not discounted another run for mayor. As recently as September, she said she was still watching city hall.

What this all means is Winnipeggers can expect some jockeying for position over the next two years, as people inside and outside city hall begin looking to replace Sam Katz.

The challenge for this mayor is to govern the city effectively during what will likely be his final two years. Roman senate-like machinations surrounding him will not make that easy task, on top of the crisis-management mentality in his office and the general circus-like atmosphere at city hall right now.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2012 A8

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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