Mayor Sam Katz held on to his job, but not his reputation. Queen's Bench Justice Brenda Keyser ruled he displayed "bad political and ethical behaviour" by making taxpayers pay for a $3,000 private Christmas party at a restaurant he owned.
Justice Keyser went on to say it was up to voters to decide what to do about it during the next election, but she said she wasn't prepared to unseat an elected mayor and spark a general election on the basis of the Manitoba Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.
A private citizen, Joe Chan, had gone to court to prove Mr. Katz violated Sec. 16 of the legislation, which roughly states elected civic officials cannot "communicate" with anyone at city hall in a way that would confer a private benefit.
Mr. Katz arguably did just that, but the judge wisely ruled the law, as written, was not intended to cover something like a Christmas party. She was also loath to toss out an elected mayor, but that would have been the only available remedy if she had decided he was in breach of the act.
She added that even if Sec. 16 did apply in this case, she still wouldn't have found Mr. Katz in violation because the mandatory penalty would be "utterly disproportionate" to what had happened.
The public can only speculate on what the judge might have ruled if a reasonable range of penalties was available. Manitoba's NDP government should heed the judge's remarks because it has so far refused to revamp the legislation, which is poorly written and perverse in the way it requires the courts to reverse the results of a democratic election over relatively minor matters.
Similar provincial legislation offers a range of penalties, from reprimands to dismissal, for MLAs found to be in a conflict of interest, but the NDP government has said it has no intention of amending the municipal conflict act.
The province says councillors have to be held to a higher standard because they all theoretically are members of the civic government, while MLAs have various degrees of power based on their position in government.
The argument for two separate levels of accountability, however, fails to recognize that even at the municipal level, some offences are not as serious as others, and some councillors have more power and influence than some other councillors.
As for Mayor Katz, he has displayed arrogance on the matter from the beginning. Instead of immediately apologizing and paying back the money, the mayor offered specious diversions and excuses, including the lame (and unsubstantiated) explanation that his restaurant put on the party at a discount rate, thus saving the city some money.
The mayor's problem from the time he was elected in 2004 has been his inability or refusal to understand the importance of perception in public life. He has also failed to understand that due process is more than red tape. As a result, he has repeatedly found himself -- sometimes unfairly -- under scrutiny.
He's fond of saying he prefers to deal in "reality, not perception," but hopefully this lengthy public controversy has taught him there are real consequences to conduct that raises questions about ethical behaviour.