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Whig Standard March 8 2008

Conflict divides city council; Results of recent meeting expose tension between mayor, councillors

By Press, Jordan

Some city councillors cried foul Tuesday night after a proposal to search for savings in the city's $259.4-million operating budget fell a few seconds short of becoming official.

Instead, Mayor Harvey Rosen called the meeting to a close at exactly 11:15 p.m. by his watch, just as councillors were prepared to vote on the matter.

The lateness of the hour required two-thirds of city councillors to vote in favour of going past 11 p.m. When the vote to continue past 11:15 p.m. arose, only seven councillors voted in favour of trudging on another 15 minutes.

The meeting came to a close.

The vote will now be moved to the end of the next council meeting in two weeks.

Some councillors walked out of the meeting Tuesday night with disgusted looks on their faces.

But the procedural decision is a microcosm for how things are going these days down at City Hall.

Divisions between factions in the council chamber that were minor cracks shortly after the municipal election have grown and threaten the pace at which council finishes business for the city and residents.

"It's not productive," said Councillor Mark Gerretsen, referring to the way the meeting ended on a sour note this week.

"There is a disservice ... to the community," he said. "The disservice is in the general way in which business is being conducted."

Councillor Dorothy Hector said the taxpayer isn't always first and foremost on the minds of some councillors during debates. When asked what could be done to change that, Hector replied, "I don't know. If I had the answer to that, I'd implement it."

It all started shortly after the 2006 municipal election. A new slate of councillors walked into the council chamber, eight of them municipal politicians for the first time.

Rosen's own words during the first council meeting foreshadowed what was to come.

"In the weeks and months ahead, we will be reminded that political office is not for the faint-hearted," Rosen said from his perch at the head of the council chamber.

"Despite extensive consultation, there will be controversy and a lack of consensus on many issues."

Immediately small divisions appeared as one side wanted to continue following the path the previous council had taken, while the other side wanted to go in a new direction and focus on neighbourhood issues.

It pitted the mayor against a group of councillors.

Rosen has never been shy to discuss his frustration and, at times, disappointment with the way things are going these days around the council horseshoe.

"The mayor doesn't have control," he said after a recent council meeting. "The mayor should have some moral suasion with council. ... I don't know if I ever had it."

Decisions have become more parochial and council has lost sight of the larger picture of the city, he said.

When city councillors sat to learn the ins and outs of their job, which was also sort of a team-building exercise, they were warned they would have to work together and not argue for argument's sake. Some say that's exactly what's happening these days.

"We're still getting business done, it's just a shame some councillors like to drive us apart," said Deputy Mayor Rob Matheson. "It's sort of unfortunate that business doesn't get done in a timely manner."

There will always be divides - that's the nature of democracy. But building consensus has "gone poorly," Gerretsen said.

Councillor Vicki Schmolka pointed the finger at the mayor after he pointed it at council.

"I don't see any agenda items coming forward from him. He's not leading council in a direction," she said. "I think there is a strong move by many councillors to run the city as efficiently and smartly as possible. Hopefully taxpayers will see the benefits."

It might be hard considering the way things ended on Tuesday night. Schmolka had a proposal on the floor to have finance staff review the budget to find any redundancies that might produce $750,000 of savings.

"There are savings," she said during the meeting. "Unless we ask, we will not find them."

Outgoing chief administrative officer Glen Laubenstein, the city's top bureaucrat, said it might be easy to find savings for this year, but it would be difficult to keep the money off the books in the years to come.

Savings this year might only delay spending it in future years, he said.

Councillor Ed Smith said he found it ironic that Schmolka would support looking for savings in the budget, but not support revisiting a decision on recycling and organics pickup that could have saved the city $260,000 a year.

With about a minute left before the clock struck 11:15 p.m., Schmolka tried to get the proposal approved. Council agreed to "call the question," a procedural move that ends all debate and moves straight to a vote.

They didn't have time. The final seconds ticked away on Rosen's watch and at 11:15 p.m., the meeting ended.

"I didn't think it was a respectful way to treat colleagues on council. He [Rosen] plays politics the way he plays politics," Schmolka said in an interview Wednesday.

"We have a city to run and we should rise above the petty shots."

Matheson said he thought it was a ridiculous way to end a meeting.

"It would have taken five seconds to count the votes. I think it was pretty - petty is the word that comes to mind."

If there was a division between the mayor and some councillors, more divisions have arisen. Even those that were thought to be aligned one way or the other don't always vote with the block they are associated with. As Councillor Joyce MacLeod-Kane said, where once there were two divisions, there are now three or more.

"My residents are very fortunate that they have the backing of this council," said MacLeod-Kane, who represents the mostly rural district of Countryside.

"I'm not concerned as much for that as the city as a whole."

jpress@thewhig.com