Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Outcome of the Katz Trial

Chan versus Katz Global News
On April 2, the deliberations of Queen's Bench Judge Brenda Keyser came down in Chan versus Katz in the case conflict of interest in regards to a 2010 Christmas party paid with taxpayer money at a restaurant owned by the mayor.

The judge decided that the Manitoba Municipal Conflict of Interest law was not intended to cover such things as a Christmas party. Her reason for such decision was also coloured by the "utterly disproportionate" mandatory penalty if she did make a finding of conflict of interest.

What the judge did find was "bad political and ethical behaviour" but when applied to the provincial law (which she read very narrowly), it did not constitute what she discerned the law's intent was.

In layman's terms, the law was vague, the penalty disproportionate and the judge was not going to remove an elected official based on the evidence presented.

For Joe Chan, the repercussions in terms of all this is going to be $10,000 to cover costs. It is hard not to think of this a punishment directed at Chan and people like Harvey Smith and other NDP/progressive types for trying to do an end run to achieve what they could not get done in past elections.

For a long time the NDP and certain labour groups have targeted Katz and have run NDP supported slates. It has been almost a complete failure for decades.

To a great extent the failure of this conflict of interest challenge lies completely with the provincial NDP. It is the law they set up that received the harshest treatment at the hands of the judge. She basically said that she would not have found guilt because of the disproportionate nature of the penalty.

Greg Selinger needs to fix the legislation. The judicial system has stated plainly they won't do the dirty work with mandatory and one option only penalties. The law needs to be clearer about what constitutes a conflict and the punishments have to be scaled accordingly.

Lest anyone think that Sam Katz is totally innocent of this, lets go back to the words that describe the mayors actions. The judge found that Katz used bad political and ethical judgement in taking city elected and unelected officials to a Christmas dinner at a restaurant that he owned. The Winnipeg Sun editorial didn't mention this. They said the lesson for Katz to learn from this was to ignore the critics. Presumably they meant the judge as well in their comment?

No doubt there are Katz haters out there. A mayor is going to be a lightening rod for criticism. However, over and over are issues related to private and public matters and governance that keep tripping up officials.

Even for Katz supporters there has to be disappointment that there is not more pointed debate to keep elected officials feet to the fire. The system is gamed to prevent opposition from taking root. Step out of line and have your top committee status revoked by the mayor. This leaves many councillors on the outside looking in on a lot of decison-making with no strong tools to mount an opposing view.

It is important to remember the system in place now is exactly what Greg Selinger and the NDP government want. They would rather continue the present system rather than risk it knocking them from provincial office. And that is a very real risk. In 1988, the provincial NDP saw provincial Liberals use municipal politics to crush them in the election. The rule allowing city elected officials to run for provincial office was closed to prevent this from ever happening again.

It suits the NDP to leave things be. It remains to be seen whether the Progressive Conservatives or Liberals will be interested in democratic reform in this area.

The suggested reforms should be:

* A completely retooled Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. A judge has said she doesn't like it and she did a work around. The law needs to be clear. It needs to have scale. It needs to be fair.

* Manitoba needs an Integrity Commissioner. Such a person would be responsible for lobbyist registration, expenses review, ethical conduct and for public disclosure of wrongdoing.

At the moment, only the court of public opinion seems to be governing certain behaviour in government offices. And by the routine way we see elected officials act, one might presume they think there are no repercussions.

That must change if there is any hope for better governance.

1 comment:

unclebob said...

The biggest casualty of this ruling as it stands is governance which cannot readily defend itself. I think, if for no other reason, that reason is sufficient to warrant an appeal. The penalty is supposed to be disproportionate to the offence because it is democracy that is being damaged. It says a lot about our system when Joe Chan is stuck with footing the bill for others.