By Robert Washburn
It was similar to watching old married couple’s squabble as Deputy Mayor Stan Frost and Councillor Miriam Mutton went head-to-head at the Nov. 26 council meeting.
Déjà vu. These two regularly go at it.
Mutton was questioning a $5,500 expense to pay for a survey being done by the Downtown (Re)Vitalization group. The money was coming from a reserve account for the Farmer’s Market.
She argued the money had a purpose and should not be considered surplus. She also called for a detailed budget from the downtown group, outlining expenses. Both excellent points.
Frost was furious. He was visibly angry when he argued the money was accounted for and was needed for this vital study. He called it the “highest priority for this term of council”.
Mutton did not back off. Finally, treasurer Ian Davey said the money was left over from the 2010 budget and was put in a reserve. So, it meant taking the money would not directly impact on the current budget. In other words, it is a slush fund or rainy day account. Nothing wrong or illegal. But usually reserve funds are kept for a specific purpose not to offset other expenditure. Again, no rules say this, but in theory this is the case.
But despite her efforts, the amount was passed.
No doubt, this all seems very trivial. But, it is not. And, Mutton must shoulder a lot of the blame for not getting the upper hand. There are a huge number of issues here, many of them relate to fiscal accountability and how are tax dollars are spent responsibly.
She dropped the ball because, after six years on council, Mutton fails to grasp procedure and how to leverage it to her advantage.
She had Frost on the ropes. He was mad, a very vulnerable posture for a politician. He failed to provide accurate answers and his argument was extremely weak. As budget chief, he should be able to explain any expenditure in detail and give a calm rationale. It took the treasurer to provide clarity. And, as a former accountant, he should know you do not keep spending money when there is not a plan. (Besides, everyone thought the province was paying for all this?)
She was on solid ground. Why was there a reserve fund? What happens to surplus money after the budget year? How come it does not go to lower taxes the following year? And, what about the poor Farmer’s Market people? What are they doing without so the downtown group can have their money? Will it be put back in 2013?
All these are valid questions that never really got asked in a clear, coherent manner.
Instead of asking questions and arguing with Frost, Mutton would have gained the upper hand by making a motion to get a full budget from the downtown group, including forecast expenditures. She could have also called for an amendment to the motion for the $5,500 to get a delay on the passage until a full budget was in front of them.
Neither of these things happened.
Strategically, it would have given her an incredibly strong position. She could have called for a recorded vote. Councillors would be held publicly accountable for their position. To vote against her suggestion makes them look fiscally irresponsible. A vote in favour meant she would win the day and her argument.
And the bonus is: This would be fodder for the next election, when she could call up the tally and argue who was really protecting taxpayers dollars.
Getting councillors on the record is so important. Asking questions and arguing is for a schoolyard, not a council chamber.
Mutton often raises good points and key issues, but regularly fails to get any concrete action. She comes off looking confused and on the wrong side of issues because she lacks the savvy to leverage a moment to her political advantage.
Maybe some of her supporters think she is a champion on council. But they would anyway. She would win over far more people, if she were able to demonstrate her prowess. Time to go back to the municipal councillors handbook and study procedure, Ms. Mutton. You should be a master by now, instead of looking like a neophyte. Maybe then, you might get more respect from the others around the chamber and from the public.