Imagine it's budget day in Ottawa. The reporters are in the lock up, and all the usual practice of secrecy before the budget is released is put in place. But...
The Finance Minister decided to go out to a bar the night before. He meets up with a top reporter from the Globe and Mail. The paper's morning headline screams confidential details from the annual budget. Scandal ensues.
The fact that budgets are revealed to the public and the media at the same time is a matter of public trust. CityCaucus.com has learned that Vancouver City 2009 budget was leaked to selective media yesterday and at the time of this writing has yet to be released to the public.
So should it concern the citizens of Vancouver that they are reading about the details of Budget 2009 in their morning paper, whilst it has yet to become a public document? They should, considering that the Mayor's Office (including all political staff) were provided an advance copy and were able to "shop" the details of the budget to select media outlets.
Past practice at City Hall is that confidential budget documents are dutifully prepared by the non-partisan public service. Once the document has been signed off by the City Manager, it is provided to the City Clerk who then distributes a hard copy to all of the elected officials at the same time. Within a matter of hours, those budget documents are then posted online for all the public and media to review at the same time. That process was circumvented with Budget 2009.
The budget documents were indeed provided to all 11 members of council. The difference this year is the City Manager ordered the documents be held back, and not posted online yesterday. In fact, as of 10 am this morning, and despite some media outlets reporting on the budget, the document was still not available for public scrutiny.
You will note we have included a screen shot from the City of Vancouver website listing a number of upcoming meetings including a link to the agenda and related documents. All other meeting agendas and documents were posted yesterday, with the exception of the one - Budget 2009, which is scheduled for discussion next Tuesday at 2 pm.
CityCaucus.com has confirmed that the digital copy of Budget 2009 was finalized, and ready to post online yesterday...that is until word came down from the City Manager's office to hold back posting budget report until sometime later today.
Ballem's decision to hold back the document effectively allowed the Mayor's political staff the time to begin distributing the document to select media outlets last night. One would think after the tongue lashing they took from Mike Howell over at the Courier, they would have learned their lesson by now. It would appear not.
The manner in which the Budget 2009 documents were distributed, or should we say, not distributed to the public raises a number of serious questions.
- Why did the City Manager order that Budget 2009 documents not be posted - as has been past practice?
- Did any City Councillors ask the Clerk's Office for advance copies of the budget before it was posted online?
- Were the Mayor's Office staff aware the budget documents were not available to all media and the public before they began distributing copies to select media?
These are all good questions, and something our special FOI fund* will be tasked with uncovering.
In the end, Harvey Enchin, a columnist with the Vancouver Sun didn't buy the Mayor's Office spin regarding the upcoming budget and he simply tore into Mayor Robertson and his colleagues regarding what he considers as overspending. You can read his well-written column by clicking here.
So once again, we want to remind those advising the Mayor that your efforts at selective leaks to get good media coverage is simply not going to work. In doing so, you are also putting at risk the reputation of the City as having a professional non-partisan public service.
UPDATE: The budget was finally posted on the City website when we checked in at 1:30 pm
*A quick "thank you" to the donors who have sent us money for our FOI fund so far. It will definitely improve the depth of detail that we can provide to our readers.