Friday, December 24, 2010

Tension | Mike O'Brien says the 'coalition' not respecting mayor, budget process (as published int he Daily Gleaner, December 23/10)

Coun. Mike O'Brien says he might not be able to continue as chairman of the finance committee if councillors don't share his vision of the city's financial direction.

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O'Brien lashed out this week at councillors who refused to support a half-cent tax rate reduction as part of the $97.9-million operating and capital budget crafted for 2011.

Although O'Brien challenged councillors through the media to consider a tax rate reduction, the first time it came to the council table was at the Dec. 15 budget meeting.

Councillors Jordan Graham, David Kelly, Marilyn Kerton, Stephen Kelly, deputy mayor Dan Keenan and Mayor Brad Woodside voted for the tax cut.

Councillors Steven Hicks, Stephen Chase, Scott McConaghy, Tony Whalen and Eric Megarity voted against it.

The budget was officially approved Monday night with the reduction in place.

Despite the fact his tax rate reduction passed, O'Brien said he feels he's at odds with the group of councillors he has dubbed the "coalition.''

"The coalition, as I call it, for lack of a better word, seems to just be in lock-step with staff and that makes it very difficult to effect change," he said.

"I found there were times there wasn't a level of respect showed for the mayor and again, it seemed to be blindly following the recommendations by staff. We have a very good staff, but the councillors are elected to make the tough decisions and set the policy and financial direction for the city.''

O'Brien said people are proud of the city and many support the direction for capital expenditures.

"But at the same time, they fully expect us to try to pinch every penny we can. That's the vision that I have and if it's not shared by the majority, then I can't carry on as finance chair. It's just too frustrating," O'Brien said in an interview.

In a private e-mail circulated to all members of city council, the mayor called for a media gag order and urged councillors to wait until the new year when they could meet.

"All I can do is give my best advice ... They didn't pay attention. What I wanted to do is talk about this privately," Woodside said.

"I got involved in it last year and I was very frustrated and I'm staying out of it this year. I've already told them they're starting to look like a Saint John council. They don't get it, so they're just going to keep at it.

"What I have to say to them in a private memo is basically, 'Calm down and let's get together in the new year' after everybody has had a chance to take a breather and stay away from the media because we're looking bad," Woodside said.

"I'm a mayor. I'm not the president of a corporation. If I was, there would be consequences to what's going on, but that's not the way municipal politics works.''

While the public may think the mayor rules, Woodside said that's not the case.

"Most of the time, I'm doing exactly the same thing as a kindergarten teacher. I get very frustrated.''

O'Brien said his frustration goes back to last year when council worked on the 2010 budget. That budget saw a 0.85 cent hike in the city's tax rate.

"Last year, we tried to work hard to at least bring in some new funding for infrastructure deficit renewal, which I support 100 per cent. It's a visionary process, but there was a group of us who thought that we could do that last year, but still keep the tax rate flat," O'Brien said.

"But there was a group of more numbers that didn't agree with us. After last year, I've heard throughout the year, especially after the provincial election, to me it became crystal clear. I didn't have to have people call me every night at home, that they wanted more fiscal restraint. To me it was just obvious."

O'Brien said he went into the budget process for 2011 convinced that the city could handle the capital construction commitments on its books, keep debt-servicing manageable, but still look for savings to start to wrestle operating budgets down.

"There were four or five of us that shared that vision and, in my opinion, it was quite obvious that there was a majority that didn't," O'Brien said.

"Maybe the four or five that kind of shared the vision, maybe we weren't as effective politicians as the other ones because there's no planning or plotting, but the group that didn't seem to share our vision seemed to be more cohesive and co-ordinated in their efforts.

"Most of the things that staff were for or opposed to were agreed to by the majority of the group. I know it is a democracy and majority rules, but it's very, very frustrating when I sense and I inherently know that there's only one taxpayer.''

O'Brien said some people accused him of bringing in the tax rate reduction idea at the last minute.

"Perhaps I did and maybe it caught some people off-guard and they didn't have time to co-ordinate how they would deal with that. And that's kind of what happened. Thank goodness ... that there were two votes that I didn't anticipate.

"When that debate came at the last minute, there was a couple of councillors that agreed with us who typically hadn't. That was a bit of a gamble and it seemed to work, but maybe process-wise it wasn't the prettiest way to go about things."

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