A short but sharp exchange between the two declared candidates for Saanich’s top political job preceded council’s decision to spend up to $200,000 towards the creation of a new budget process.
Mayor Richard Atwell and Coun. Fred Haynes accused each other of lacking leadership during the exchange, which erupted after Atwell said that he would be voting against the recommendation from staff to develop options for a four-year engagement cycle.
Atwell said staff should instead draw inspiration from the participatory budget planning process that the City of Victoria uses. It is readily accessible and has received praise from outsiders, including members of Saanich council, he said. “And it’s definitely cheap,” he said. “It’s definitely cheaper than $200,000.”
While the funding would come from Saanich’s strategic reserve fund, taxpayers would still be paying it, he said. “I would like to see our process improve, but I’m not going to spend $200,000 when we can just be looking next door, and working at a peer level, and copying an improved process – or one that is at least perceived as improved.”
Haynes then called a point of order to ask Atwell why he had not raised these points before Monday’s meeting. “Why did you wait until council?” asked Haynes. “I don’t understand the process that you are in. You created the finance committee to exactly deal with these issues.”
Atwell tried to interject, but Haynes pressed on. “You had your time at the finance committee,” he said. “You raised none of this then, and then you ambushed the decision of that committee, and staff, and this council. This is poor leadership, Mr. Mayor.”
Atwell said he had time to think about how much money this process was going to cost. “There is a $200,000 cheaper solution right next door, and all we have [to do] is look at it, ” Atwell said. “And if you are criticizing me because of leadership, I think it is a lack of leadership on how we spend money, when we could be looking for another process that is close by.”
Responding to Haynes’ criticism that Atwell was undermining the committee, the mayor said it did not matter from where the idea originated. “Councillor, with respect, and I don’t think you have listened to me and heard what I have said, I don’t think this is a good use of taxpayers’ money. I think we can go next door and greatly improve the process. It doesn’t matter if it has come through the [finance] committee.”
Atwell said Saanich had considered creating such a process in the past following a committee recommendation in 2015, before turning it down because of costs. “I don’t know why there has been a come-to-Jesus moment on spending the money now, when no one wanted to spend it in 2015.”
Council eventually approved the staff recommendation with Atwell opposed.
While efforts to improve the budget process date back to at least 2015, they gained steam with the final report of the Governance Review Citizens Advisory Committee, which lamented the lack of public input.