An Ontario judge's decision to toss Toronto Mayor Rob Ford from office over a conflict-of-interest complaint has illustrated the potential consequences of a similar allegation against Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz.

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'It's a shame beautiful trees are dying for a story such as this' --Mayor Sam Katz

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES

'It's a shame beautiful trees are dying for a story such as this' --Mayor Sam Katz

An Ontario judge's decision to toss Toronto Mayor Rob Ford from office over a conflict-of-interest complaint has illustrated the potential consequences of a similar allegation against Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz.

On Monday, Ford was removed from office for breaking Ontario's Municipal Conflict of Interest Act because he failed to recuse himself from a council vote on whether he had to repay an improper charitable donation.

The political future of Winnipeg's mayor could be decided the same way next spring, when a judge decides whether Katz broke Manitoba's Municipal Council Conflict of Interest Act in 2010 by spending $2,915 of public funds on a Christmas party at Hu's Asian Bistro, an Ellice Avenue restaurant owned by the mayor at the time.

On April 2, court will consider whether public spending on this party, held for city councillors and department heads, violated provincial conflict-of-interest legislation, as argued by the complainant, Winnipeg restaurateur Joe Chan.

If the judge decides Katz broke the rules, the penalty is all but automatic: The mayor will lose his council seat as unceremoniously as did Ford.

"People will try and draw comparisons, but if you look, there is nothing," Katz said Monday in an interview, assuring he is not concerned about what he described as a frivolous complaint. "It's a shame beautiful trees are dying for a story such as this."

Chan, who manages Cathay House Restaurant and has worked for Daniel McIntyre Coun. Harvey Smith, initially filed a declaration in the Court of Queen's Bench alleging Katz engaged in a conflict of interest. After making procedural errors, Chan withdrew his motion and was forced to pay $750 in court costs.

The complaint was then picked up by human rights lawyer David Matas, who filed another declaration and managed to secure the April court date.

"From what I understand, there is no merit to the case and it will probably be the exact same situation once more," Katz said. "A Christmas party has nothing to do with a meeting of city council."

Manitoba's municipal conflict-of-interest act stipulates elected officials must not vote on decisions that could benefit them to the tune of $500 or more. The act is meant to govern business on the floor of council and council committee meetings, said Robert Tapper, Katz's lawyer.

Based on Chan's logic, the mayor would violate the rules any time he takes a councillor to lunch at his restaurant to discuss city business, Tapper argued.

"I would be more than hopeful the judge will see this as the nonsense that it is," he said.

Comparing the Ford case to the complaint against Katz is like comparing "apples to horseshoes," Tapper said.

Matas agreed the allegations in the two cases are different, but noted the potential punishment essentially is the same: the loss of one's seat.

"Litigation is never certain but structurally, it's the same situation," said Matas, who argues the Manitoba act applies to Katz's spending decision.

Municipal law experts say the judge in this case may be forced to consider technical arguments.

For example, the fact council approves annual budgets for the mayor's office could allow someone to argue the provincial act applies to specific mayoral spending decisions.

"It's funny how the really silly, little things can bring you down," said University of Manitoba law Prof. Anne McGillivray.

"Even if the act only applies to what's said and done in the council chambers, which is where Rob Ford got in trouble, it doesn't speak to whether you are governing with integrity."

On the other hand, U of M law Prof. David Asper said the act gives judges very little leeway in terms of the punishment they mete out against violators.

"If the judge finds there is a breach, then the only choice the judge has is to remove the official from office," Asper said. "That's a pretty draconian provision."

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca