Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Who's really at fault in the mayor's accident?

Katz admits responsibility, but nobody's charged him so far

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It's the accident everyone seems to have forgotten, or wanted to.

Well, almost everyone.

On a frigid Friday morning in late January, a van driven by Mayor Sam Katz and another car collided and careened onto rush-hour downtown sidewalks. It was an otherwise unremarkable accident. Except, of course, for who was driving the van.

 

-- -- --

It was Jan. 21, shortly after 8 a.m.

The impact of the collision beside the Winnipeg Convention Centre was so loud, office workers at the public trustee's office heard it five floors up in the adjacent BDC Building.

Weeks later, a witness to the aftermath would tell me how she did a double take when she saw a shaken Sam Katz get out of the driver's side of the van. Then she noticed police were already there. She would also remember the officer asking the mayor a question. Did he need help?

Later that morning, a photo taken by an employee of the public trustee's office ended up on the Free Press website, where ever-alert readers would ask the obvious question.

Who was at fault?

Later that afternoon, Katz appeared to answer that question.

According to Free Press reporter Bartley Kives, who was there, Katz told a scrum of city hall reporters that day he thought he was probably at fault.

It wasn't reported at the time, Kives subsequently told me, because the reporters decided reporting the mayor's comments before the MPI process was completed could prejudice the outcome.

I hadn't heard about any of that when, a week later, I met deputy mayor Justin Swandel and asked him about the accident. Swandel answered as if it was no big secret and no big deal.

The mayor "slid through a red light," Swandel said.

So the next day, I asked the next obvious question of the next obvious people. On Jan. 28, I sent an email to the Winnipeg Police Service inquiring as to whether any charges had been laid or any were contemplated.

"I understand he 'slid' through a red light," I added.

The police response felt dismissive.

"At this point, no provincial offence notices have been issued. This is a Highway Traffic Act matter and MPI will now become involved to determine fault."

At that point, as I later learned, police already knew the answer to my question.

But they weren't telling me.

Then in early March, after allowing time for the MPI process, I emailed the mayor's office requesting an interview with Katz about the accident.

Three days later, when I hadn't received an acknowledgement, I called Katz directly and left a message. The mayor, who initially had seemed so open to doing the right thing by taking responsibility for the accident, didn't return my call. But later that afternoon, his communications department responded via email. By that time, the mayor's chief of staff was involved.

 

"In response to your question --- Bonnie Staples-Lyon from our office phoned the Winnipeg Police Service to see if his traffic incident was treated any differently than any other citizen and the response was 'absolutely not.' "

But that's not what I asked.

Two weeks later, I'm still waiting for the interview with the mayor.

I also asked for an interview with Police Chief Keith McCaskill about what he knows about the accident.

I'm still waiting for that, too.

In the meantime, it was left to Insp. Jim Poole, who's in charge of central traffic, to respond to my questions.

The email trail with Poole, which started Feb. 25 and finally finished Thursday, ends where the first police email began.

At a stone wall.

The police invoked provincial personal-privacy legislation, to the point that Poole wouldn't even share which way the vehicles were travelling.

He said the bulk of my questions would have to be submitted via a freedom-of-information request.

But then, later Thursday afternoon, Poole called. He wanted to talk.

A week earlier I had emailed him an extensive series of questions. He finally confirmed neither driver was ticketed for going through the red light.

That answer only took two months.

Not that I was surprised police might be shy about giving the mayor a $199.80 ticket. Not after the mayor had pumped up the police budget by millions during his time in office. Not after the police association openly supported him during the civic election.

What did surprise me, though, was Poole's next answer -- that the officers at the scene made the decision that day, right at the scene. Independently, the police service would have us believe. Without any oversight from higher-ups.

That leaves the bigger question: Why didn't police ticket the mayor for disobeying a traffic device after he publicly seemed to take responsibility that day?

Poole left me with the impression that the officers simply exercised their discretion. Of course, there is no discretion for the nearly 10,000 vehicle owners who get tagged annually at the red-light "revenue cams" the mayor is so fond of. But that's another story.

When I asked Poole what determines the use of discretion when two cars collide at a controlled intersection, he said there are all kinds of variables.

"It's speed, it's road conditions.'

Anyway, the road conditions weren't bad that day, judging by photos of the scene I've looked at. Poole said he could see where I was going. Did the mayor get preferred treatment?

"And that's not the case," he volunteered.

Poole acknowledged that the mayor's office did call the chief's office later that day, though.

"To commend the officers on the job they did," Poole said.

-- -- --

The fact the mayor was involved in a traffic accident where, thankfully, no one was seriously injured, is a small story. Where it becomes bigger is when, after apparently taking public responsibility, he isn't ticketed. And both he and the police chief refuse to talk about it. Even more disturbing is the police service playing hide-and-seek with answers, and seemingly fast and loose with core values like integrity and trust. All it would have taken is for the mayor and police chief to agree to waive privacy in the name of the public trust and transparency.

Instead, we're left with a decision by police that ignored the public trust. And, ironically, a process that appears all too transparent.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2011 B1

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