Looking back over the last 12 months of local headlines, there were many strong and powerful stories in our pages this year.
From the trial of CFB Shilo soldier Jason Ouimet for the murder of Duane Lacquette, and the end of the Brandon chapter of Habitat for Humanity, to the City’s unsuccessful pursuit of casino talks with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and the buzz over the possible return of commercial passenger flights to Brandon, several local issues grabbed our attention.
But there can be no question which story topped them all — the river of chaos that flowed freely from city hall this year was unparalleled.
That Brandon has made national headlines at least twice this year thanks to the dubious machinations of our mayor and council has earned our municipal government the title of the Sun’s news story of 2012.
The year began with talk of a 15 per cent hike in property taxes as the city proposed a 2012 operating budget of $75.2 million in what was a property reassessment year. Councillors were deluged with emails and phone calls demanding that the City rethink its spending plans. An online petition that garnered more than a thousand signatures made the point that the public was becoming angry.
Yet it took a hostile crowd at a hastily planned budget forum at city hall last February to finally drive the point home that some cuts had to be made. Two days later, Brandon’s city budget dropped by $3.67 million after city council held an emergency meeting to deal with the issue.
While the new budget passed, and city residents mostly paid their property taxes on time, this lesson in public humility took its toll upon our mayor and council.
However, even as the public pitchforks over the tax issue were lowered, Mayor Shari Decter Hirst’s critics kept the fires of controversy burning. As winter turned to spring, allegations began to swirl about her 10th Street property, its proximity to The Strand Theatre and her connections to the group attempting to restore the building — the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society.
Questions arose about Decter Hirst’s relationship with the BFMAS after money from a $474,000 grant was allocated to The Strand from Renaissance Brandon. Decter Hirst was not mayor at the time Renaissance Brandon initially pledged the $474,000 grant, but was in office and a member of Renaissance Brandon when some of that money was paid out during the Brown Block demolition project.
Though she was initially cleared of any conflict of interest by city clerk Con Arvisais, his office later asked for a legal opinion anyway.
That opinion was apparently given verbally to council, and not, as the Sun was initially led to believe, via a written report.
And while council decided not to pursue conflict of interest charges against the mayor in court, as she made an “honest error in judgement,” the lack of a physical report has not helped to silence her critics — though not one of them has seen fit to take the matter to court themselves.
There were a few other questionable issues throughout the year, including the much-delayed audited financial statements for 2010 and 2011 and the mayor’s recent setback over the province’s proposed Bill 7 and the affordable housing issue.
But the year basically ended as it began for our elected officials — in fury and turmoil — as Decter Hirst lost her cool following a November council meeting and uttered a threat against Coun. Stephen Montague (Richmond) after he disregarded directives from the chair.
“Stephen, if you ever show disregard with that microphone on again, I will slap you on the back of the head so hard your head will spin,” Decter Hirst was recorded as saying.
That gave Montague, who has been a vocal critic of the mayor, a soapbox from which to bellow and Decter Hirst a public relations nightmare for more than a week. The whole episode culminated in a written and verbal apology from Decter Hirst, and prompted council to formally adopt a code of conduct in its dealings with the public and city employees.
While our mayor and council will still have to come to grips with the aftermath of the tumultuous year that was, it’s our hope that they find some common ground in 2013. While all these political flare ups make for great headlines, they take away from the serious job of running this city.
More of the same we simply do not need.