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