Saturday, May 30, 2009

Residents fume over Municipal Budget Meeting

- Linda Jaquet -

Heated arguments disrupted a public meeting hosted by the Municipal Council on the evening of 13 May at the Sydwell Williams Centre when Speaker Stoffel Botes informed the over 100 attendants that he would not allow any questions about the budget from the floor. According to Botes, residents could only submit verbal input on the budget for further consideration by him and the Council, provided their comments did not duplicate those already received in writing.

Most people in the packed hall were clearly disappointed since the written invitation to residents said that the meeting was to address issues of concern related to the proposed Municipal budget for 2009/2010. A summarised report on the draft budget by Executive Mayor Maria Benjamin and Deputy Mayor April Pienaar was followed by angry exchanges between the floor and the Chair.. Councillor Botes ruled local farmer, Willem Freysen, out of order during his heated interchange with the Executive Mayor on the provision of housing for farm workers. A call for calm by a number of residents meant that the meeting could then proceed.

Representations from the floor covered the increase in councillors’ salaries and allowances, the cost of upgrading of Municipal offices, overspending on legal fees, the budget allocations for roads and the upgrading of the storm water system, proposals for youth development, income from traffic fines and the Municipality’s social development responsibilities. There was concern that the public scrutiny of the draft budget process had not been advertised in the local media, whereupon Councillor Goliath of Leeu-Gamka criticised the Friend for its negative reporting on the Municipality.

Councillor Botes informed the meeting that until recently Prince Albert had been the only municipality where councillors had not received the upper limits of their salaries and allowances as determined by law. They also had not had a salary increase in three years. Botes pointed out that councillors’ remuneration was largely met by National Government, with less than 1% derived from the Municipality’s income from rates.

The Executive Mayor responded strongly to the written representations submitted to the Municipality. She was scathing of a number of suggestions, including demands for the Municipality to create jobs and alleviate poverty, provide animal welfare and deal with complaints about the Police. Replying to a call for the Council to take action against children begging in the streets, she pointedly asked former councillors present: “What did you ever do to improve people’s lives?”

Deputy Mayor, April Pienaar, described tourism as a priority area as far as job creation in the Prince Albert Municipal area was concerned. He said that the local tourism industry should be open to all and so contribute more to sustainable socio-economic upliftment.

In closing, Cllr Benjamin called on all residents to work together with the Municipality. She appealed for racism to be stamped out and urged for constructive ideas as well as criticism. “Our doors are always open,” she said.

Residents, who spoke to the Friend, felt they had been misled about the nature of the meeting. They were critical of the weak chairing and felt that if Cllr Botes had not put a stop to questions and had been firmer in dealing with the initial aggressive and at times, racist interaction between the floor and the Mayor, the tension and anger that pervaded most of the meeting could have been avoided.

A disillusioned resident commented “I’m convinced that the councillors were on the defensive and colluded in insisting on no questions at all. If they had been open and accountable they would have disarmed their severest critics.” Another said “The Mayor made valid points about the written submissions, but did she have to talk to us in such a rude and patronising way? We all want our local government to work and now we’re going to have to find ways of fixing the damage that has been done unnecessarily and working together.”

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