The issue of transparency at Hamilton City Hall reared its head again on Thursday night, as council searched for a resolution on a police budget so controversial it has been sent back for tweaks numerous times.

Hamilton Police Service Chief Glenn De Caire has made the case for a 3.71 per cent police budget increase — but after hours of deliberation, councillors voted to decide on the request at a later meeting.

'It makes it look like someone is trying to cook up a deal.' —Coun. Terry Whitehead

Some councillors said they needed more time to analyze the budget request in an "offline setting," which prompted Coun. Terry Whitehead to question the optics of the situation.

"My only concern is that it almost appears that we want to try and negotiate something behind closed doors, as opposed to having an open discussion," Whitehead said.

"It makes it look like someone is trying to cook up a deal."

Whitehead said many councillors have already met with the chief to ask many of the questions raised at council.

"I don't want to hold the board or the chief ransom for an indefinite period of time," he said, adding that would be the case if council doesn't plan to accept a 3.71 increase. Council seemed to be leaning towards rejecting the increase Thursday night.

"I don't think that's fair to them because the wheels keep turning for them," Whitehead said. "Operationally, it leaves the chief on pins and needles."

But Coun. Brad Clark took Whitehead to task for the statement over transparency, and said the meetings would be necessary in order for councillors to make an informed decision on the budget.

Clark also suggested that Whitehead's seat on the police board has allowed him more opportunity to ask questions of the chief than some others on council.

"You sit on the police services board, you ask more questions than anyone around this table," Clark said during the meeting. "And now you're telling us we don't have the time to sit down with the chief? Get a grip."

A 'dance with the police chief'

A sticking point for much of council was a firm answer about what a "maintenance budget" for police would look like. A maintenance budget would allow police to keep 2012 service levels, but not add any additional services.

The police chief told reporters after the meeting a maintenance budget would come in at a 3.6 per cent increase when collective bargaining agreements were considered. Some councillors seemed unsure of that number, Clark said.

"Ultimately, councillors needed clarification on some issues," Clark said, adding that he is hoping the issue will be back before council by the middle of March.

"This has very much been a big public dance with the police chief."

Coun. Sam Merulla told CBC Hamilton that though the "optics on the situation are not the best," councillors should still have the option to sit down with the chief one-on-one to hammer out the details of the budget so that they can make an informed decision.

"The fact that councillors want to meet with the chief for more information is their prerogative," Merulla said. "Ultimately, it's going to all be public.

However, Merulla also said that he has no plans to meet with the chief to discuss the budget.

"The chief had asked to meet with me previously, and I told him there's nothing you can tell me in private you can't tell me at committee."

Merulla said he'll be supporting a maintenance budget that continues the level of service from 2012 and also meets collective bargaining constraints, which Chief De Caire repeatedly stated as the primary drivers for the budget hike.

"We need to nail that down," Merulla said.