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(060822 Boston, MA):The City Council meeting at City Hall on Wednesday,June 8, 2022 in Boston, MA. (Staff Photo By Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
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Frustrated city councilors crossed swords with administration officials over apparent budget misunderstandings around the body’s new powers ahead of an upcoming final vote.

The beef in question largely centered on last week’s move by the mayor to throw out the council’s proposed intra-departmental transfer amendments — and then send over a memo Wednesday morning a few hours before a council hearing about it providing reasons.

“Is it fair to consider that we were not set up for success?” pondered City Councilor Julia Mejia as councilors questioned Boston Corporation Counsel Adam Cederbaum, the city’s top lawyer, in a hearing Wednesday morning led by Ways & Means Chair Tania Fernandes Anderson.

The city and its council are in the midst of the first run-through of a new budgeting process, approved by the voters last year, that gives the council power to amend the budget. Council did so, notably cutting money from the police department and adding it to youth-jobs initiatives, among other moves, and now Mayor Michelle Wu has resubmitted her own amendments, which restore police funding and make other more minor changes.

The current kerfuffle, though, centers on how the council’s approved intra-departmental appropriations — moving around cash within a department — were essentially transfers from nowhere, which made them just directives for how to spend existing money. That’s something the council doesn’t have the authority to do, Cederbaum said, so the city threw the $8 million worth of those out in the re-amended $4 billion budget.

Basically, the council has the authority to take from one budget line and add to another, but not to give further instruction on spending the city’s budget, per the corporation counsel, who’s the city’s top lawyer. That means, for example, that the council could decide to take money from the “personnel” line item in Public Works and give to the “equipment” column — but it can’t add instructions to use that to buy a new street sweeper for downtown.

“The council is not here to conduct the executive or administrative business of the city,” Cederbaum said.

A few councilors took issue with that, including Ruthzee Louijeune, a lawyer herself, who said it seems like the working of the newly amended charter remains vague and that “there’s a lot of gray area.” Mejia raised the idea of the council challenging Cederbaum’s interpretation in court.

City Councilor Kenzie Bok posited that “We on the council would have drafted our order differently” if the rules had been clearer beforehand.

And City Councilor Frank Baker asked the city’s representatives directly: “Why weren’t you guys here when we were going through these amendments?”

“Part of it was respecting this body’s internal deliberative process,” budget chief Jim Williamson responded, “But we also didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

The final budget vote is expected next week. Wu only needs five out of the 13 councilors to agree with her to avoid an override of her latest budget proposal, though the council does have the power to override some of her amendments to it while leaving others intact.

If the council doesn’t override the mayor’s counter amendments, her budget will go into effect for July 1.

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