Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell was absent from council Wednesday, the same day her opponents were prepared to grill her on how she took a secret pay cut last year without council's knowledge.
Last October, she requested the city withhold her November and December pay, a full seven months after the backlash to the revelation she was the highest paid mayor in Canada.
On Wednesday, Ms. Fennell said in a statement: "My husband John Fennell has been admitted to hospital to undergo open heart surgery. As a result, I will be away from City Hall today and throughout the initial stage of John's recovery."
The debate on her private arrangement with the city's treasurer to amend her salary carried on in her absence, with one of Ms. Fennell's allies trading barbs with her most vocal opponents. On the weekend, council members received the agenda for Wednesday's meeting, which included a report from the city's accounting manager on council members' salaries and expenses for the last year. It was there that one councillor noticed Ms. Fennell's salary had been reduced from $148,619 to $125,544. In 2012, she took home $213,000, which includes pay for serving on Peel Region council.
"There's no doubt there was a strategy to show, 'Oh, I'm not the highest-paid mayor' when this report came out," said Regional Councillor John Sprovieri.
On March 31, when Ontario's Ministry of Finance releases its "sunshine list" of salaries of public-sector employees who make more than $100,000 a year, it will be clear whether Ms. Fennell's pay cut means she's no longer the highest-paid mayor in the province. Mr. Sprovieri said since she is the mayor of the ninth largest city in Canada, her salary should also be the ninth largest.
Regional Councillor Elaine Moore said she was fine with the mayor taking a pay cut, but she was unclear why the mayor didn't put it to a council resolution. In December, after months of debate both in council and in the media over the mayor's discretionary spending, travel and car budget, council cut many of her allowances and also passed a motion to freeze an upcoming 2-per-cent pay increase all councillors were to receive.
"This is a perfect example of a lack of transparency," Ms. Moore said.
She asked John Corbett, the city's chief administrative officer, whether Ms. Fennell's decision to ask for the cut outside of council was up to code and whether the pay freezes voted on in December would have gone forward without a council vote. He responded that he could not offer a "definitive answer" because the issue is so infrequently dealt with that the city has no clear policy on the matter.
"I understand why the mayor isn't here today. She is where she should be. But it would've been helpful to have her here to respond to comments," Ms. Moore said.
On Monday, one of Ms. Fennell's campaigners circulated a press release, saying the mayor wanted to take the pay cut "quietly and without fanfare."
At Wednesday's meeting, Regional Councillor Paul Palleschi spoke in her defence. "The person went and did it and you can't accept it. The way I read it is you're upset you didn't get to cut her salary and she did it on her own," he said to the mayor's opponents.
Mr. Sprovieri asked Mr. Corbett whether, should Ms. Fennell lose this fall's election, she would be able to ask for two months worth of back pay at a later date. Mr. Corbett said Ms. Fennell's request was in writing and could not be retracted.
Mr. Palleschi called Mr. Sprovieri's question "stupid."
"I wasn't going to speak to this but come on, guys," Mr. Palleschi said. "In a mayor-versus-mayor race everything's fair game. But you're running as a councillor for a councillor's job. Maybe you should look at what you've spent on expenses and what you've wasted of taxpayers' money."
The mayoral election is expected to be a heated three-way race between Ms. Fennell, Regional Councillor John Sanderson and former provincial municipal affairs minister Linda Jeffrey. When Ms. Jeffrey announced her resignation from cabinet to enter the Brampton mayoral race at Queen's Park this week, she said she was inspired to run in part because of the expense scandals that have surrounded the mayor in the past year.