Anton grills Ballem, Robertson and Meggs over breach of protocol
After a long council meeting last Thursday, you could excuse City Manager Penny Ballem if she decided to call it a day and head back to her office. Normally at this point in the meeting, the items labeled “new business” are placed on the agenda. Councillors take this time to either ask a routine question such as when a report will become public or to congratulate a community group for something extraordinary they’ve accomplished. Last Thursday afternoon was not business as usual.
A few weeks ago Anton noticed something interesting in a media advisory issued by the City of Vancouver regarding a technical briefing organized by Ballem. The briefing related to proposed amendments to the so-called Olympic gag bylaw. The advisory stated Ballem would be doing an “off the record” briefing, while Vision Councillor Geoff Meggs would be available to speak on the record on behalf of the City.
NPA Councillor Suzanne Anton got up and began asking a series of pointed questions to Ballem regarding her role in having Councillor Geoff Meggs included in an official staff media advisory. It was usual practice (before City Hall became so politicized) that any news releases/advisories issued by the City of Vancouver would either quote the City Manager (or her staff designate) or the Mayor. Individual councillors would only appear in media releases drafted and issued by the Mayor’s office.
Anton, a former crown prosecutor, had Ballem (a trained hematologist) on the ropes several times and kept pressing her regarding whether Meggs had been given an advance copy of the report – something that’s considered a breach of civic government protocol. Apparently the actual report was only delivered to the COPE and NPA councillors about 15 minutes before it was made available to the media.
Anton then grilled Ballem over how Meggs had been selected out of the 10 councillors to become official spokesperson on this issue. Then it was COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth’s turn as she also took Ballem to task over the timing of when she received the report.
After the questions had been posed, Ballem stood up and awkwardly began defending her decisions. As for why Geoff Meggs was on the official city media advisory? Well, according to Ballem, it wasn’t technically a news release, therefore she felt it was okay to put Meggs on the media advisory. Even the Vision councillors appeared puzzled by that response.
Why was Meggs chosen versus Councillor Woodsworth as the official spokesperson? This is where Ballem began to dig the hole a bit deeper. She told Anton the Mayor had appointed Meggs as the spokesperson on this issue:
Councillor Meggs is the Mayor's designated...uhm...he has been designated to carry and be a resource for staff on the Olympic file from the very beginning. So he is someone that we have used as a resource for us on council to reflect some of our ideas so that we can get a bit of a feel for where we should be going. He has been a spokesperson as you know in the media on the village issue. On this bylaw he has spoken extensively in terms of informing the media as to what is going on. So the media advisory that went out is a technical media advisory not a press release...
As for Robertson...he let Ballem squirm in the hotseat a while before he finally came to her rescue and told Anton:
I can't speak for staff on how all this transpired. I do know Councillor Meggs has been in constant demand (chuckles) for his work on the Olympics file and the bylaw issue specifically. I will leave it to staff to use their discretion and be mindful of your concerns in the future.
That’s when Anton got back to her feet and essentially advised Ms. Ballem that she is no longer working in Victoria as a Deputy Minister. The Mayor is not the Premier (although we know he has plans for it one day) and councillors are not cabinet ministers. Therefore, Anton argues this type of non-partisanship at City Hall should cease immediately as it threatens the independent nature of the public service.
This isn’t the first time Councillor Geoff Meggs has been in a controversy surrounding the grey zone between a non-partisan public service and political staff. When he served as the Chief of Staff to then COPE Mayor Larry Campbell, it was discovered that he put his taxpayer funded phone number on the bottom of a "Friends of Larry Campbell" news release. At the time, opposition councillors Peter Ladner and Sam Sullivan had a field day claiming that taxpayer resources were being used to help create a new political party (Vision Vancouver).
I simply don’t buy the argument the Mayor made Ballem put Meggs’ name on the media advisory. She’s the top public servant in the City and should have realized how this would have been perceived by Meggs’ opposition colleagues.
Anton deserves full credit for raising this “inside baseball” issue and trying to ensure the public service remains truly non-partisan. Unfortunately, it looks a lot like she’ll have her work cut out for her as the lines between politics and public service continue to blur at 12th and Cambie.