MONTREAL - Montreal's embattled mayor has decided to take a few days off while city hall is engulfed in a corruption scandal that has already torched some of his ability to govern.
The administration's prerogative to pass a budget appears to have been undermined by the crisis of confidence sweeping over the city.
Mayor Gerald Tremblay's administration announced Thursday that it would consider tabling a new annual budget — just 48 hours after presenting its original plan.
In the midst of a scandal over waste and theft at city hall, the municipal administration had attempted to pass a 3.3 per cent increase in property taxes.
That tax hike had been criticized not only by residents, and the mayor's opponents, but also by the provincial government. A councillor even quit the caucus of the mayor's party.
Thursday's budget announcement came from the city's executive committee chairman — who also confirmed that the mayor would be away for a few days.
He downplayed the schedule charge, saying Tremblay would be back at work Monday.
"It's normal. There's nothing there," Michael Applebaum said.
"He has the right to take a few days off."
The timing of Thursday's announcement is important: if Tremblay quits before Nov. 3, one year ahead of the next municipal election, an early vote for the mayoralty will be held.
If he quits afterward, under provincial law, he can be replaced by city council without an election. His party holds the majority on council and municipal elections across the province are to be held in November 2013.
Tremblay is the second mayor in the scandal-plagued Montreal area to take a leave for unspecified reasons, after a similar announcement from his colleague in Laval.
Tremblay's break comes as he and his administration remain under the microscope. A witness testified at Quebec's corruption inquiry this week that Tremblay not only knew about illegal fundraising within his political party — but actually ignored it.
Tremblay had spent years denying knowledge of any wrongdoing and the party's lawyer has moved to have the mayor testify before the commission as soon as possible.
His opponents have been demanding his resignation for weeks. On Thursday, one suggested holding a vote immediately and creating a five-year term for the next Montreal mayor.
"The worst (scenario) is to have a mayor with no credibility, with no legitimacy," said Louise Harel, the municipal opposition leader. "It's total improvisation... I've never seen improvisation like this."
Tremblay has cancelled a pair of public appearances this week including a major speech scheduled for Friday outlining his economic legacy.
Applebaum sounded less than confident about his boss's future job prospects. He hedged his response when asked whether the mayor was quitting.
"I can't tell you. It's up to the mayor to make decisions about his political future," Applebaum said. "For now, the mayor of Montreal is Gerald Tremblay. He will continue to be the mayor of Montreal."
He's the second mayor to take a break. His Laval colleague Gilles Vaillancourt has taken a longer-term medical leave of absence.
Unlike Vaillancourt, who was accused of personally pocketing kickbacks during testimony at Quebec's public inquiry, the mayor of Montreal is not accused of personally taking money.
Tremblay's party has, however, been accused of illegal fundraising and some of his closest associates are deeply immersed in ongoing corruption scandals.
The city's reputation has come under intense scrutiny as a parade of witnesses have come forward to testify about rampant bid-rigging and collusion.
Retired city employees, a construction boss and former political staffers for Tremblay's own party have testified over the past few weeks that they had heard that the mayor's party was collecting a three per cent cut on rigged construction contracts.
Applebaum said he shared taxpayers' outrage. He said he had asked officials to submit alternative plans for a new budget.
"I understand that taxpayers are angry after watching what's happening at the Charbonneau Commission," he said. He added that he had created a group responsible for monitoring the inquiry and taking steps to sue and pursue thieves to recoup lost city money.
At the inquiry on Thursday, a crooked Montreal civil servant says it would have been difficult for any honest supervisor to catch him because he was so good at doctoring contracts.
The now-retired city engineer, Luc Leclerc, told a public inquiry Thursday that he was adept at manipulating construction contracts to inflate the final price tag awarded to companies that had given him kickbacks.
Leclerc said he always hid the phony expenses behind legitimate unexpected costs that popped up over the course of a project.
He has been less apologetic while testifying than another colleague who repeatedly expressed remorse for what he had done. Between the two of them, they pocketed more than $1.2 million in kickbacks from construction companies that benefited from rigged bids.
Leclerc illustrated his attitude with an anecdote.
He described how some companies were unhappy when a new player, Lino Zambito and his Infrabec company, arrived on the scene a little over a decade ago. He said he joked with Zambito that he had the power to make life difficult for him — to keep him from winning contracts and diluting the spoils for everyone else.
Of course, Leclerc said, he didn't do that in the end.
"I never made life difficult for anyone," Leclerc said.
"On the contrary, I had a reputation for offering five-star service."
Leclerc has already admitted to pocketing more than $500,000 from companies — in addition to vacations, hockey tickets, wine, Christmas baskets, ham, and home renovation work.
He has described a golf vacation with the head of Canada's most powerful Mafia family, Vito Rizzuto, and described the don as a charming and funny travel companion.
-With files by Alexander Panetta and Sidhartha Banerjee