Many people believe that journalists secretly pray for public figures to humiliate themselves. That we take special pleasure in exposing to the world the foibles of characters who, for the most part, make a living on their reputations.

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This article was published 24/10/2011 (3867 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Many people believe that journalists secretly pray for public figures to humiliate themselves. That we take special pleasure in exposing to the world the foibles of characters who, for the most part, make a living on their reputations.

It would be hard to deny there is some pleasure -- sometimes guilty, sometimes not -- in watching the rich, famous and powerful humbled by their own transgressions. But there is a limit. Sometimes it's not pleasure, but a painful regret, at watching someone suffer from repeated self-inflicted wounds. It is in that light that this space offers some unsolicited advice to Mayor Sam Katz and chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl.

BARTLEY KIVES / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

BARTLEY KIVES / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Please stop.

The Free Press reported Saturday that Sheegl, the most senior public administrator and the mayor's right-hand man, had installed a statue of the "three wise monkeys" outside his office on the second floor of the administration building at city hall. The three primates -- which see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil -- sit chained to a railing outside Sheegl's office, a greeting that is ambiguous at best to anyone who visits the centre of the city's administrative power.

What is the meaning of this rather unusual art installation? No one is quite sure. Sheegl was away from the office last Friday when a Free Press reporter attempted to get a straight answer. We can safely assume that in these days of seamless wireless communication, Sheegl did not want to explain his actions. That's too bad, because it meant that the city's chief operating officer, Deepak Joshi, was left holding the bag for Sheegl.

Despite his valiant efforts to defuse interest in Sheegl's statue, he managed only to make a bad situation a little worse.

Joshi was correct to say that when it comes to art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, this isn't an abstract painting of some sort, it's an iconic image that in western cultures has come to embody the wilful ignorance of impropriety.

"There was no message intended, other than the CAO liked the piece," Joshi said.

Although there was some concern expressed when Sheegl, a real estate developer with no significant public administration experience, was appointed Winnipeg's top bureaucrat, no one has ever suggested he is not an intelligent man. But only a very unintelligent man would seriously think there is no message in the installation of that statue.

The consensus at city hall is that Joshi is an intelligent man as well, and we can safely say that in offering this untenable explanation, he simply failed at a job that nobody could have done successfully. The suggestion that Sheegl happened across the statue in an art gallery somewhere and bought it not knowing its meaning is almost Homer Simpsonesque in its absurdity. ("Oooh ---- look Marge! Three funny monkeys.")

Unfortunately for Joshi, his bad situation got worse. After several of the usual suspects from council suggested the statue was a very unprofessional gesture by the CAO, Joshi shot back: "We have a very professional work environment and we live by our own code of conduct."

Freudian slip? If there is a constant complaint about the way Katz and Sheegl do business, it is that they choose to embrace their own standards for due process and propriety. It was only a slip of the lip from Joshi, but what an unfortunate slip.

If one accepts the unlikelihood that Sheegl didn't know the meaning of the statue, then what are we to deduce about his motivation? Humour is out, for reasons outlined above. A thinly veiled warning to the bureaucracy to ignore impropriety seems a bit clumsy. When you boil it all down, mischief seems to be the most likely explanation. A mischief brought on by a confidence that Katz and Sheegl, lifelong friends and business partners, can do almost anything they want without consequence. Despite the transgressions, questionable judgment and sketchy management of individual files, Katz keeps getting elected with the unequivocal support of a gross majority of Winnipeggers. In bringing his monkeys to city hall, Sheegl seems to be enjoying the same fearless approach to his job.

One last bit of irony in this story: Joshi said the statue, now chained to a railing, was to be permanently affixed outside Sheegl's office as soon as city workers figure out how to do that. Memo to Sheegl: If you love your statue, it might be a good idea to strip all power tools from the city workers lucky enough to get assigned this gig. Just saying.

The statue was a bad idea. If it was supposed to be a joke, it is a very bad joke. It not only affects Sheegl's reputation with city employees, it casts aspersions on the mayor's office, given the close relationship between the two men.

On the other hand, it certainly makes for a good story.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca