Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City audit fated

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City council's decision to unanimously endorse an audit of civic real estate transactions over the last five years was inevitable. There was simply no way the city could dodge an auditor's scrutiny following a series of land deals that raised too many questions and too many doubts about the integrity and professionalism of the process as it related to Mayor Sam Katz and others.

The suspicions and mistrust may turn out to be unfounded and even unfair, but the only way to reach that conclusion and restore public confidence is through a thorough investigation.

Mayor Katz has been dogged by innuendo since he became mayor eight years ago, but even that was somewhat inevitable because he was a man with too many fingers in too many pies. Over the years, he has owned buildings and businesses throughout the city, while participating in joint deals with friends and colleagues.

His biggest venture, of course, was his ownership of the popular downtown baseball park, which turned him into a hometown hero when it opened in 1999 and then helped him win the mayoral race in 2004. Ironically, it has since become one of the sources of suspicion, since the ballpark is intertwined with civic business, including a parking lot near The Forks the city owns, but leased by a company Mr. Katz controls.

With this background, it was hard for him to avoid criticism and suspicion, but he could have mitigated the problem by being more open about his various business connections, rather than relying on the public to trust him. He also showed poor judgment, including his purchase for $1 of a dormant company owned by the city's chief administrative officer, Phil Sheegl, a deal that saved the mayor a few thousand dollars, but opened both men to allegations of an inappropriate business relationship.

The property audit, combined with a separate investigation into a land-swap deal, will likely find fault in many areas. Even the mayor now agrees the land swap that resulted in a fire hall being built on land the city still does not own was a disaster, but it took him too long to come to that conclusion.

The audit will examine the controversial land deals of the last five years, but it should also probe the way administrators and politicians interact with the business community, as well as the process that sometimes seems to have favoured Shindico, which may only be a result of the company's size, skill and track record.

The firm did a disproportionate amount of business under previous mayors, too, but the point is the air needs to be cleared for all who have been caught in the whirlwind of mistrust.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2012 A12

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