City Manager stonewalls on access to information request

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

36 comments

stonewall-ballem
Is access to public information being stonewalled again by Dr. Penny Ballem?

First the Mayor saluted communism. Now we can say that in at least one instance Vancouver City Hall is about as transparent as the Politiburo once was. It's been almost a full six-months since we requested financial information regarding the City Manager's Strategic Initiatives Fund. To date we have been stonewalled.

Last year my friend and fellow blogger Frances Bula once commented on the work of CityCaucus.com by suggesting that city hall watchers didn't always need to place an FOI into city hall to get information. She regularly tells her Langara College students that placing a phone call first may yield the same results as an FOI request – without all the paperwork. Over the last 2 years our FOI requests to get information have produced mixed results. There are times like here, here and here where the system seems to works well. However, on many other occasions like here, here and here our efforts to keep Vancouver City Hall accountable have been stymied.

Today, however, more and more media are grumbling to us at the difficulty of getting access to information from the City. That’s because City Manager Penny Ballem has instituted a new provincial-style command & control system for dealing with information requests. In many cases, front-line staff who used to be able to respond directly to media inquiries are now being told to steer those calls to Vision-friendly corporate communications. This has lead to a lot more "off the record" and "for background only" discussions.

Our most recent efforts to obtain basic information regarding the Strategic Initiative Fund helps shed light on why so many people are grumbling. Back in the spring we asked for a simple breakdown of expenditures relating to the City Manager’s "slush fund" (that's how Vision used to refer to it when Judy Rogers was in charge). We were told to put our request in writing and someone would get back to us pronto. In fact, we even received a letter stating the City had a legal obligation to get back to us within 30 business days. That would have meant a response to our request by no later than May 20, 2010.

Months passed and no response. Finally we placed a call into the City Clerk's office to see what was going on. Although they were helpful, they indicated the City was not in a position to provide us with this information anytime soon. We then proceeded to call BC's Privacy Commissioner for some assistance.

The Privacy Commissioner then opened up a file and helped persuade the City to provide us with the information we had requested. We're told the City’s lack of response was technically considered as a “deemed refusal”. In other words, the City just didn’t want to give us the information and had no legal reason to do so.

After a lot of negotiations, we finally agreed to a “consent order” whereby the City advised the Commissioner's office they would provide us with the information we requested by no later Friday, September 24th. Sure enough, a terse one-page letter arrived in our inbox last week. However, after months of stonewalling, rather than responding to our query we received the following three line response:

Here is the breakdown you requested:

  • Corporate Business Plan - Phase I - $100,000
  • Vancouver Services Review - $606,116
  • Transfer to IT long-term financing plan $500,000

Needless to say, although we know a tiny bit more about where the money was spent from the Strategic Initiatives Fund, we by no means have a breakdown of the expenditures as originally requested in our letter sent on April 8, 2010.

Did any external consultants receive part of the $606,116 referred to in the City's note to us? If so, which consultants? And just how much were their contracts? What about the corporate business plan? Were external consultants used and just how much were they paid? Were any of the consultants donors to the Vision party? We ask these questions because it's not as though Vision has never landed themselves in a PR pickle due to the hiring of external contractors. Unfortunately, you will likely never know the response to these questions because the City Manager continues to avoid releasing this information to the public.

We were advised this morning by the Privacy Commissioner's office that the City's brief note to us from Friday technically means they are no longer in breach of the Act. However, that doesn't mean they actually provided us with the information we requested. It simply means they responded in writing to our request.

CityCaucus.com has now sent a letter to the City of Vancouver advising them that we are not satisified with their limited response. As a result, the Privacy Commissioner will be forced to open a new case file and we're told we "likely won't get any resolution to this prior to next year."

Hard to believe, isn't it? We asked a simple question last April and it will take almost one year to get the information from the city – if it ever arrives at all. Was it not Mayor Robertson and his Vision caucus that promised to create the most open and transparent municipal government in Canada?

At least we can report to you that $606,116 was spent on the Vancouver Services Review (VSR) from this "slush fund" (not sure if more was spent through other budgets). To date, Ballem's cherished VSR resulted in only a handful of the City's 9000+ employees actually being laid off from their jobs.

Meanwhile, what the core review did successfully do was place an incredible amount of stress on thousands of management staff and unionized workers who, along with their families, believed Ballem when she speculated it might result in significant layoffs. It should be noted that despite most of City Hall being empty, the full VSR team still inhabits the 4th floor.

Let this be a lesson to anyone who believes in the principle of more openness or transparency at Vancouver City Hall. If you're prepared to file several complaints, go through the inquiry system and spend countless hours on the phone, you may well get the information you are looking for in the end. Then again, maybe you won't.

- post by Daniel

36 Comments

so much for democracy...

You will get as much democracy as you can afford, comrade.

That they are hiding information means they are guilty and just haven't yet been "caught".

FOI turns up CityCaucus's Mike Klassen's invoices to City under Sullivan, but no contract http://bit.ly/d6ZxIk

Mike,

The thing I admire most about your blog is how you allow for open discussion and don't censor or 'approve' posts as they come in. I saw the post you deleted and hope you reconsider.

getreal - Welcome back.

It's nice to know you admire something about CityCaucus.com, boo. Sure, it's off-topic, it's a smear I've addressed before, and it's being done by Mike Magee's old pal Ian Reid with the help of the sister Gregor Robertson's key bankroller Linda Solomon, but let's just use the privilege of anonymity to post it here, shall we?

I checked with the City today, and the definition of a contract includes a simple request by email and an acknowledgment thereof. Reid & Magee are all wet on this little smear job.

"What else should we discuss today? Where you post comments from during work hours, for example?"

IMO, either you out everybody's personal information, or nobody's. Otherwise it smacks of intimidation based upon who disagrees with you.

If anonymity is a privilege, then there should be some rules or guidelines explicitly stated as to how or why that privilege is granted or denied. As it's the most common choice of most posters, I would suggest it's closer to a right than a privilege. Murky waters to be sure.

Maybe it's just me, but isn't it ironic that a story about stonewalling on access public information has become an opportunity for Vision supporters to change the subject and ignore the very serious breach of the rules around FOI?

After months of research and digging up dirt, the best you can uncover is something that's been out in the public domain for months? We've all known Klassen worked for Sullivan doing website maintenance. Big deal. Are you implying that he billed for something he didn't do???

This is another lame attempt by Vision's supporters at a drive by smear. Hopefully it was done in an electric car!!

Mike, given how lame weak this is, I don't think you have anything to worry about moving forward. Boy does Ian Read and his vision pals look desperate now. I also agree with Mary that they want to change the dial so nobody talks about their breach of the access to information act in BC. Funny how they don't want to talk about that. Let's stay on topic please.

What the Vision Character Assassination Team seems to be conveniently ignoring is that Mike Klassen was not running nor being paid to run an attack blog while working for Sam Sullivan, nor was he paid in a sneaky, roundabout way through another company as we have here with FDE and Civicscene.

No one is challenging FD Element's legitimate contract work for the City of Vancouver. We want to know why FD Element was paying a blogger to run an NPA attack blog, and who is paying those FD Element invoices? The City or Vision? Why is Vision continuing to duck and cover and hide where these payments came from? Did they not run on being completely open and transparent in the last election? Clearly they have something to hide.

Furthermore, you also have Linda Solomon, sister of Vision's and Gregor's largest donor and biggest supporter: Joel Solomon. She is running a purely pro-Vision website disguised as a "news" site. A site that regularly features the smears and rants of Ross, the other attack blogger, and other Vision insiders. Who is funding that site? Gee, I wonder who that could be and if they love Rubbermaid products?

Nobody is buying the histrionics and deflection coming from Vision and their supporters anymore, they've already proven they are vindictive, hypocritical and dishonest.

Look, when you're trying to save the world from ignorant nits, you need to centralize power as quickly as possible, and anything that slows or threatens that process cannot and will not be tolerated. So why don't all of you oil-slurping dinosaurs have a nice glass of milk and a cookie and leave City Hall to those who know what's best for you? OK? OK.

Ah, all true-but they mean well...

So is Dr Ballem a City Manager or a political apparatchik? I know the answer in reality, of course, but is there in fact a legal restriction on the degree of her involvement with a single party or are we facing the more difficult problem of long standing convention being ignored? It's certainly disturbing to think that the money at stake here could, in theory, be disbursed in five untendered contracts.

Of course none of this is to deny Dr Ballem's expertise in controversial invoicing.

On the other matter, if a person is deliberately obscuring their identity to pursue an orchestrated campaign of disruption there surely comes a point where their comments have to be deleted. I'd suggest, however, that it would be best for Mr Klassen to leave a marker and explanation where this has been done and for the rest of us to treat these types like an obnoxious drunk at a party. Ignore them until they are given the bum's rush.

On the subject of 'noms de plume' I'm starting to see the attraction, given the mentality on display at the City Hall

"...despite most of City Hall being empty, the full VSR team still inhabits the 4th floor."
City Hall has never been seismically upgraded. It's kind of off topic, but it really should be a priority. That building is almost as scary as the people running it right now.

I think we can summarize the communication policy of Vision as thus - "watch the birdie"....

What's striking me is this from the city's open data: "Open and Accessible Data - the City of Vancouver will freely share with
citizens, businesses and other jurisdictions the greatest amount of data
possible while respecting privacy and security concerns;". And Mr David Eaves claims "Vancouver enters the age of the open city" (http://eaves.ca/2009/05/14/vancouver-enters-the-age-of-the-open-city/)

Off topic but of interest:

(Note the new price tag attached. Not sure how one spends $200K on putting out information on the bike lane....)

Bike lane closer for Hornby
VANCOUVER/CKNW AM 980
Janet Brown | Email news tips to Janet
9/28/2010

The Hornby Street bike lane is one step closer to becoming reality.

The general manager of Engineering Services is putting a formal recommendation before council asking that a trial, two-way separated bike lane be built on the east side of Hornby Street.

Total cost is not to exceed 3.2-million-dollars.

The cost for a public information campaign is expected to be 200-thousand.

The report going to council says the trial is to last six months after which a decision on a more permanent design could be made.

During the trial staff will be monitoring cyclist and motor vehicle traffic and will also carry out a business impact study.

on that note Max...Frances has just posted a letter to Mayor and Council from DVBIA, OPPOSING Hornby bike lane.

Hi George:

I read last week the DVBIA and had spoke out against it.

The letter will mean nothing to the Mayor and Council - they don`t care.

Remember the word the Visionistas keep posting and repeating....

Agenda.

Aside from poor planning on this `trial`(do love that word as well), it will be interesting to read the pumped up numbers that will surely come out in support of this lane.

Opening this lane in time for the Christmas season will hurt trade to these businesses at their busiest time.

My bets, the businesses will organize and go after the city by the way of a law suit.

After reading many of the posts in the last couple of months I would like to know what Dr.Ballem really thinks of her bosses.
Don't forget the Mayor is her boss.
In fact, I'd like to know what the other Vision elected think.
Don't forget.
Mr.Mayor came in at the last minute to win the nomination.
I'll never forget the look on the faces of the Vision members who had wanted someone else.
Couldn't hide their dismay on t.v. (even to those of us who don't belong to any political party)

I am at least vindicated by the fact that others are acknowledging the Commies in the City Hall.

Many months ago I received a nice Vision bashing on Bula's site. See here:

http://www.francesbula.com/uncategorized/dunsmuir-bike-lane-trial-up-tomorrow-one-submission-here/

Nothing changed since. On the contrary. Those Vision punks are are exactly where they wanted to be, somewhere in between 'KKapitalism' and 'KKCommunism'.
It's called:'A**holeism' I'll drink to that.

The Thought of The Day

“Flatulence of the brain is a state of ‘gassy mind’, the result of a non conventional, petty, unfulfilled lifestyle. One of the symptoms is a tendency to excrete ‘vocabulary gases’ in large quantities, mostly in public. Now you know why most ‘No smoking’ signs are affixed in government offices, city halls, court houses. Those gases are highly flammable.”

If Ballem were a conventional doctor, you know, stethoscope around the neck, white coat, writes you a drug prescription, you know – that kind, then I’m speculating she would have dedicated her entire life to Obstetrics or perhaps Gastroenterology (for colonoscopy’s sake). Why Obstetrics, you may ask.

Because,IMO, she likes to inflict pain to others, and then because she likes to watch. Yep, picture lots of women scattered around her hospital Wing, screaming in pain, during labour, with no sedatives or painkillers administered, ‘as per doctor’s orders’... wouldn’t that be such a treat? Punishment for them sinners, for having unprotected sex, and for getting pregnant. But the doctor from Bedlam would not stop at that, no, I bet she would instruct the nurses to administer them something special. She would have those women ‘scoped’.
Scopolamine.
The WWII truth serum. The soporific drug. The amnesiac.
The pain is there, the screams are real, but they won’t remember a thing when it’s over.
That’s the goal anyway.
Could this, would this be a fair description of our Dottore?
‘Cause, so far, as top administrator, this is exactly how she is treating Vancouver. Poor city, it got violated by a bunch of Vision nitwits, and now it has to go through with the painful delivery of a little Vision bastard. And guess who’s watching...

Do I have a wish list? Sure. I wish that, when the time comes, and she’ll be ‘forceps’d out... to have her scoped. No question about that. We might even find out few interesting things, without having to go to a FOI request.

On the other hand, if I was the doctor in residence, I would have given her an Epidural every time before she was scheduled to administer a Power Point Presentation in public. Have you seen the look on this woman’s face during one of those? Man, it's brutal, it’s like witnessing the self administering of a 'three hours long' oral suppository. Bru-tal!

Okay, next time we’ll talk about the pros and cons of the Caesarean Section, followed by treatment options for a Herniated Disk and we’ll close with a good story of Glomerulonephritis. And Penny, sorry for the inconvenience darling, with so many medical terms used in here, I must be giving you ‘Cutis Anserina’, oh sorry...Goosebumps.

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.


Glissando, you are something else. How on earth do you come up with this stuff? I don't know how Amadeus composed his operas but I bet he was having as much fun doing that,as you do when writing. F***g Brilliant. And yes, PB's description sounds accurate to me. LOL

To every one who thinks she is not a real doctor
Dr. Penny Janet Drury Ballem, MSc, MD, FRCP is the city manager for the City of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and served as a member of the VANOC board of directors, corporate director for Bentall Capital G.P. Ltd., as well as a senior adviser to RPO Management Consultants.She is a physician and clinical professor at the University of British Columbia Medical School in the department of hematology and bone marrow transplant.

Sad that she has to be a political hack.

BTW She is not spoke well of amongst MD circles

LOL. Penny, you are trying too hard! I don't think anyone suggested you don't have the papers/ degrees. Good for you. However, your background as a pencil pusher, bureaucrat, political and corporate hack is too strong. It stinks actually. Gawd.

"During the trial staff will be monitoring cyclist and motor vehicle traffic and will also carry out a business impact study."

Brilliant! Do the research on the finished product. What are they going to do stand in front of businesses counting the customers? If so, they should have started. How can they compare if there is no before &, for that matter fewer after if some of the businesses don't make it. This is just a plain dumb way to do this when much of the appropriate assessments can be done beforehand thus, permitting better, wiser decision-making.

The DVBIA should take the City to court.

Stay tuned for the results of the Employee Engagement Survey.

You won't need to file Freedom of Information request to know the results. The stench will waft its way throughout the entire city.

@Bill:

"How can they compare if there is no before &, for that matter fewer after if some of the businesses don't make it.'

Presumably all those businesses have daily receipts which would make it quite easy to compare before, during, and after... if they're willing to volunteer the information.


Gregor could voluntarily show us his daily receipts, and invoices....all of the invoices....

@George:

The information would probably have to come up at some point anyway, if the businesses were to try to make any claim against the City for lost revenue. I can understand why they might not want to for competitive reasons, but I doubt anyone is comfortable just accepting claims for damages without some proof thereof. Are you?

Exactly Chris,
that is why I think the City should show their invoices and clean up this whole other mess, before we get stuck with the $$$$$ lost.. for the sake of my grandchildren, rather than the desires of a special interest group and bike lanes...

My point Chris is we are human. We have been given the gift of abstract thought & reason. We can think ahead, analyze & predict. The very notion of not doing so when you have a very considerable number of businesses who are saying they will be adversely affected is irresponsible.

@George:

50% of Canadians own a bicycle. That's a big special interest group. Your grandchildren will probably being riding a bicycle downtown, unless the current trends reverse. The best thing you could do for them would be to make the roads safer so that they can travel in relative ease, esp. given the cost-effectiveness of cycling infrastructure. In the long run, you'll be leaving them with a modern transportation network and fewer bills to pay.

@Bill

Even a cursory reading of the Hornby bike lane proposal shows that staff considered other routes, business impacts, and talked to businesses along the street. In fact, that consultation is resulting in a $1 million dollar increase in the total bill to taxpayers, as they address the concerns raised by business. In short, your admonition for sober forethought is needless. It's already been done. Further, if this bike lane is a certain business killer, where are the examples from other jurisdictions to reference when claiming businesses will be hurt by this? These kinds of projects are going on all over the world. It's hard to imagine examples of negative impacts wouldn't be invoked by the project's critics.

no Chris,
my grandchild won't be able to ride the streets and your group now makes the sidewalks very dangerous so I guess I'd rather see those invoices...I must be that 50% that don't have a say...

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