EDITOR - TODD LIHOU: The gap between council and administration can look wide at times

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Just when you thought budgets were boring along comes Cornwall city hall.

Typically at this time of year city council and administrators set aside days of meetings, and hundreds (if not thousands) of man hours to pour over the budget document and prepare information packets that usually go about as far as the recycle bin at 340 Pitt Street.

Things kind of exploded on Tuesday this week when many city councillors all but accused managers of ignoring them.

It's not the first time budget meetings have become a tinderbox of controversy.

A number of years ago after a very short debate (I'm told it was measured in minutes) the city presented its budget and approved it all in one shot.

All hell broke loose. Editorialists screamed that the city was pulling the wool over the eyes of the public and others complained a thorough examination of the budget was owed to every citizen in Cornwall.

This time around things appear more serious because the relationship between city council and administration is being called into question.

It goes like this: Several city councillors were miffed with the fact that a separate budget document was not created that included a so-called "zero per cent" tax levy increase.

Council asked for such a document last year – but none could be found when budget meetings began this week.

The finger-pointing started when Coun. David Murphy suggested administrators ignored the request. Some administrators countered that council wasn't clear enough in its language. Before long councillors were sniping at each other with one camp suggesting administration did what it was told, while others believed city managers were charting their own course.

Administration was on the defensive throughout. Coun. Andre Rivette even muttered a few words, apparently, that can’t be repeated in a family newspaper.

For the record the language in the council motion, at least from this desk, looks pretty clear: "That council direct administration to prepare a budget document with a two per cent levy increase and to also prepare a budget document with a zero per cent increase for comparison."

The motion was passed by city council way back in September and can be read by anyone with Internet access.

So where does that leave us? As far as the budget is concerned nothing much has changed.

Council wanted a "zero per cent" option to determine what it would have to cut to make that a reality. In effect they got the next best thing, which is a budget that wouldn’t increase the amount shelled out by the average residential property owner in Cornwall, while maintaining existing service levels. Council later mulled a change that wpould increase spending slightly to offset road repair work.

But the budget fireworks this week cast more light on a disconnect between city councillors and managers.

Many councillors have suggested to me, privately, that they have a problem with the way the city is run. The suggestion is that while the buck is supposed to stop at the council table, city managers are doing their own thing on many occasions.

It's akin to a misunderstanding at best, and mutiny at worst.

I can understand the frustration at times. During a budget exercise, for example, city managers do a lion's share of leg work while councillors get the headlines.

And it must be tough for managers to be second-guessed into oblivion by councillors looking to save a nickel here and a dime there in a budget that is now measured at something like $150 million.

I know not everyone gets along with their neighbour all the time, but I'd like to think on a purely professional level that council and administration can work together more effectively.

On its surface it looks like administration went rogue in this case. Council issued a specific direction, and got something unexpected in response.

To be fair, administration got it right with the budget they presented to councillors this week.

Where it dropped the ball is not alerting councillors beforehand. When was the last time your boss asked you to do something and you didn't? I'm betting you heard about it.

I think administration got the message this week – the big question now will be what happens next?

Geographic location: Cornwall, Several

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