Katz meets his Waterloo
His lip quivering, his voice quavering, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz threatened to punch out the village idiot who showed up at an anti-budget rally with a sign depicting Katz as Hitler.
It was the only show of backbone he could muster in the week he met his Waterloo.
By week's end, his political enemies had seized him by the scruff of the neck and rubbed his nose in the dirt, forcing him to put on a happy face and declare how much he loved the smell of earth in the springtime.
For years, Katz had managed to outwit, outplay and outlast his opponents. Then, in the blink of an eye, he lost his political integrity so badly he was left trying to have another man take the fall in his place.
The man who once declared people needed to know the City of Winnipeg could be trusted to live up to its word---"a deal's a deal"--- watched his deal broken with a handshake, a smile and some shuck and jive.
It was cringeworthy.
The deal couldn't be simpler.
- The city had some surplus land southwest of the site of Upper Fort Garry.
- It issued an RFP--a request for proposals--to see what potential buyers had in mind for the land.
- They received three proposals---Heritage Winnipeg wanted a park and "interpretive centre", one developer dreamed of a 40-storey tower, and Crystal Developers pitched a 15-storey apartment building.
- City planners---you know, the people we pay to do this sort of thing---recommended the apartment building as the best compromise between raising some money for the city and preserving the heritage of Upper Fort Garry. The deal would see Crystal buy the land for $1.8 million. Annual property taxes of around $153,000 could go towards upkeep at a park and interpretive centre that could still be built on the lot next door.
- The city's Standing Committee on Downtown Development approved the deal in May, 2007.
The committee-- Councillor Russ Wyatt, Chairman; Councillor Jenny Gerbasi, Councillor Gord Steeves, Councillor Justin Swandel and Mayor Sam Katz---met in camera. Katz may not have attended. It's an obvious bet that Gerbasi voted against the deal, the only apartment development in downtown Winnipeg in 20 years.
The committee's decision is final. That should have been it.
But Heritage Winnipeg refused to allow the process to work. After all, it was just elected city councillors making the decision. Didn't they know who really runs the city?
Heritage Winnipeg morphed into Friends of Upper Fort Garry, a collection of millionaires, and, as it turned out, members of the Manitoba Club.
The Club had just spent millions renovating their premises and they weren't about to watch an apartment building go up in their back yard.
After all, you know who lives in apartments, don't you?
Riff-raff who can't afford their own houses.
So the so-called Friends launched a campaign to veto the city's deal. Luckily, they had among their members someone who owned a newspaper.
Step up Bob Silver.
The Winnipeg Free Press became the official house organ for the Manitoba Club and did everything possible to undermine the city, regardless of how much they had to twist the facts and skew the truth, to the point where witnessing the richest people in the city take money from school children was presented as a triumph.
How the millionaires, who spend more money on lunch in one day than the kids raised in good faith, must have chuckled.
The first break for the Friends came when Russ Wyatt backstabbed Katz and announced he had changed his mind and now rejected the Crystal deal. Then they came up with an archeologist who "discovered" that the edge of Upper Fort Garry was actually further west than anyone had known for a generation or two. Or maybe it was three, what's it matter?
The surplus land was now 3000 square feet less, which would mean Crystal would have to downsize their project to 120 apartments from 180.
To the disgust of the Friends, Crystal said "Okay."
The city would lose money on the deal, though. The land was worth only $1.2 million instead of $1.8.
But Wyatt and Gerbasi (of course) were determined to sink the project on behalf of the millionaires even if it meant permanent damage to the city's reputation as an administration that could be trusted.
They brought the deal with Crystal up a second time before the Standing Committee on Downtown Development with a motion to kill it in favour of the millionaires' park project.
Enter Sam Katz.
Instead of defending the integrity of the city, the mayor injected a poison pill which he sugarcoated as a "compromise." Shuck, meet Jive.
Katz, and supporters on committee, Steeves and Swandel, passed a motion to give the Friends until March 31 to come up with, among other conditions, $10 million of a $12.5 million plan to build a park encompassing Upper Fort Garry and the surplus city land.
No one has ever explained. Why did Katz undermine the Crystal proposal in December, 2007?
And why did Katz play nine councillors for fools March 19 when he got them to vote against a motion to give the Friends more time to meet the conditions set in three months earlier?
And he certainly did because by month's end, the Friends of Upper Fort Garry had failed to meet a single one of the conditions set in December. But the deal with Crystal developers was still off, in favour of the Friends.
* They had failed to buy the Grain Exchange Curling Club as stipulated. They had a memoradum of understanding to talk about buying the club, instead.
* Despite picking the pocket of every schoolchild they could find, they failed to come up with $10 million. They had to resort to counting twenty years of upkeep for a non-existent national park on the Upper Fort Garry site as part of their obligation.
* The Winnipeg Free Press, of course, didn't challenge a penny of this ficticious fundraising. And neither did Sam Katz. Instead he did everything short of carrying the president of Crystal Developers on his back in gratitude for walking away from the apartment project--- purely out of the kindness of his heart, of course.
* Rubin Spletzer said he was giving the Friends two more years to raise money for their project. Two weeks ago he showed up at city hall threatening to sue if they didn't live up to their deal with him.
Sniff. Sniff. Something smells.
And that smell emanates from the Mayor's Office.
* The city has a process to sell surplus land.
* They followed the process.
* The mayor amended the process in mid-stream.
* Then when the Friends failed to meet the pre-conditions of the amended process, the mayor says don't blame me, blame Rubin Spletzer for putting his project on ice.
* The city loses $1.2 million and $153,000 a year in annual taxes.
And Katz grins and shakes Spletzer's hand.
Thanks, buddy. Who wants people living downtown, anyway?
Hitler? Hardly. Charlie Chaplin, maybe.