Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Integrity lesson for all

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford believes reality, or at least his version of it, should trump perception. Mayor Ford, in other words, still doesn't get it.

Within an hour of a judge's ruling that he violated the province's municipal conflict of interest and council's code of conduct, the bombastic and mercurial leader of Canada's largest and most powerful city defiantly proclaimed he had done nothing wrong and he vowed to run for the mayor's job again.

Mayor Ford blamed a left-wing conspiracy for his ouster, demonstrating the same defiance and denial of wrongdoing that got him into trouble in the first place.

His offence was taking part in a council vote over repayment of $3,150 in donations he had solicited for his private football foundation using official city letterhead, a clear conflict of interest. The city's ethics watchdog had ordered the money be repaid, but Mr. Ford refused because he thought the perception of wrongdoing was exaggerated.

In fact, even the judge acknowledged there was no evidence of corruption or that the mayor benefitted personally from the transaction. Nor was there a problem with transparency -- there was no attempt at a coverup or any denial of the transaction.

But Mayor Ford, the judge ruled, displayed "wilful blindness" about the importance of rules and decorum that are intended to ensure voters the system has integrity and that public officials can be trusted to act appropriately.

The judge added that "the suggestion of a conflict runs to the core of the process of government decision-making. It challenges the integrity of the process."

Mr. Ford's actual offence was relatively minor, and his troubles could have been avoided if he had heeded the advice of the city's ethics commissioner and repaid the money. He chose instead to be guided by hubris.

The worst part of the entire affair is the negative attention the mayor has generated for Toronto and the expense of holding an election over an issue that could easily have been avoided. It also means the democratic will of the people has been undermined by an act of reckless stupidity.

The Ford affair is a useful lesson for elected officials everywhere.

Mayor Sam Katz, for example, has been under a cloud of suspicion since he was elected in 2004, particularly over his ownership of the Winnipeg Goldeyes and the opaque management structure of Riverside Park Management, the non-profit entity that leases the ballpark and a valuable parking lot at The Forks known as Parcel 4.

His relationship with Sandy Shindleman of Shindico has also raised fears he is too close to some of the people doing business with the city.

When concerns were first raised in 2004, Mayor Katz responded: "I can't worry about perception. I'll worry about reality."

He's since learned, one hopes, that perception does matter.

There's been lots of innuendo that the mayor has engaged in multiple conflicts of interest, but there's not a shred of evidence to back up those suspicions. He is facing an allegation he breached conflict guidelines by holding a Christmas party for his staff and councillors at a restaurant he owned at the time. A court is to hear the case in April.

The mayor voted against the idea of establishing an ethics watchdog at city hall for administrators and elected officials, but he should reconsider whether such a position might be in everyone's interest, particularly his own.

The creation of such a position would not be an admission of wrongdoing. On the contrary, it could protect councillors and the mayor who, from time to time, face complex questions about integrity.

If Mayor Ford had taken the advice of Toronto's watchdog, for example, he would still be mayor, and the public would be satisfied that no one is above the law.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2012 A10

History

Updated on Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 9:12 AM CST: corrects spelling of Sandy Shindleman

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