UPDATE Friday @ 12:30 PM: Shocking admission by City FOI manager Paul Hancock in today's column by Allen Garr. Ready below for more information.
After Vision Vancouver suffered through a summer from hell and a fall from grace, you’d think they would be looking for a better winter season of positive press. Not so. Mayor Gregor Robertson and his hapless communication gurus are in the midst of trying desperately to spin themselves out of their most recent mess. This time it relates to their silly gag order instructing city staff they can’t freely speak to the media unless their nano-manager has given them the green light.
As you can see from the front cover of 24 Hours newspaper (which was read by hundreds of thousands of us taking transit on a snowy November day), Vision have landed themselves into serious political hot water – yet again. They have veteran city hall reporters like Frances Bula, Jeff Lee, Mike Howell, Charlie Smith & Bob Mackin pissed at their City Hall-itburo tactics.
Makes you kind of wonder when Robertson (and his financial backer/mentor Joel Solomon) will finally wake up and realize they need to make some big time staff changes in the Mayor’s office soon, before it’s all too late. They keep this up and the NPA can run a cardboard cutout and still win a majority.
As we’ve written here, here, here and here before, it has become very difficult to get information out of Vancouver City Hall-itburo. That’s because the Mayor’s hand-picked City Manager is slowly turning 12th & Cambie into a mini provincial capital, complete with a new press room and centralized command-and-control communications.
For his part, the Mayor has also helped to give City Hall a very provincial feel lately. He’s appointed a quasi-cabinet and on most days acts as though he were the Premier of Vancouver, not the Mayor. It’s a move that has rubbed many of the City’s public servants the wrong way. Contrary to when Philip Owen, Larry Campbell and Sam Sullivan were mayor, Vancouver City Hall is now a much more secretive and difficult place to get information regarding even basic reports to council.
It’s not just the staff at CityCaucus Tower that have felt the wrath of Vision at City Hall-itburo, take a look at what the city’s top civic reporters and columnists are saying about the Robertson regime. Here is an excerpt from Frances Bula's blog:
So, in order to prevent councillors from being asked to comment when they’re not ready to, staff are no longer going to be returning calls about staff reports.
Wendy Stewart suggested that I call COPE Councillor David Cadman instead. Which I did and, while I’m sure David cares deeply about noise in general in the city and has championed anti-noise initiatives, he knew almost nothing about the specifics of this report and didn’t have answers to the technical questions I had. No surprise, since it’s really staff and the legal department who initiated this particular effort to come up with noise-minimization measures.
This is unprecedented and a sad day for everyone who covers the hall. I’m also not totally surprised at this rather blunt statement. I’ve noticed over the past while that staff sound more nervous and cautious when I call to have them explain something to me. I’ve heard through various channels that staff have been told bluntly not to say anything about particular high-profile issues, like the casino.
And here is Jeff Lee's take:
The city that was the first in B.C. - and I think also in Canada - with a freedom of information bylaw long before the current neutered BC Information and Privacy Act came in - once had such an open-door policy that one could talk to staff who could readily and expertly explain the issue at hand. It was tempered by a rule that staff generally were careful not to upstage politicians by commenting on reports to council before the electeds had a chance to see them. But the staff were available to explain issues within the reports in an unbiased way.
When I returned to the beat in June, I noticed a significant change in the way people behaved from the Hall I knew a decade ago.
How about Charlie Smith at the Georgia Straight:
This is incredible. Bula and other journalists, including myself, have spoken to staff countless times to get them to explain their reports. It's a sad day at Vancouver City Hall if Vision Vancouver and its hired gun, city manager Penny Ballem, have decided to silence these public servants.
The muzzling isn't new. When I called the chief license inspector last year on a licensing issue, I got a call back from Ballem. Ballem's predecessor, Judy Rogers, never got in the way of reporters' calls to senior staff.
Only now, it appears to have become a formal policy. If Vision Vancouver has any guts, it will bring forward a motion before council on why it feels it's necessary to muzzle city staff.
Of course, that would result in a real debate—something Vision Vancouver avoids at nearly every opportunity.
Mike Howell over at the Vancouver Courier also weighed in:
In my eight glorious years at the Courier, I’ve always been able to reach a staffer to have that person explain complex reports, budgets, get updates on projects, obtain statistics, etc.
I did that under the governments of Sam Sullivan and Larry Campbell and it was never a problem—nor was it to call Sullivan and Campbell at home.
Recently, under Mayor Gregor Robertson’s government—which, by the way, promised to be more transparent—I’m lucky to get a call back from a staffer. All requests are now handled by the city’s punctilious communications department.
As for veteran civic columnist Allen Garr...well, he chose to write about TransLink funding this week.
Despite her best attempts, Ballem has failed to control the dozens of current and former staff who regularly contact CityCaucus.com to help expose the shenanigans taking place at Silly Hall. I also doubt Vision Vancouver’s attempt to muzzle staff will have any impact the seasoned journalists I’ve just mentioned who also have fantastic sources throughout the Hall.
As the Mayor’s media honeymoon continues to fade, and his polling “negatives” continue to soar, rest assured the clamp down on staff will only get worse.
As for the City's official response, Mairi Welman, the new Director of Corporate Communications doesn't help matters much when she wags her finger and states to the media in an email (our emphasis):
Lastly, on a personal note, I've been the Director of Communications for eight weeks at City Hall and not one of you has called or dropped by to raise these issues with me. I find that discussing things in person is usually far more effective. A phone call and the chance to respond before going live with this particular story would have been very helpful.
Robertson promised to open Vancouver City Hall up to the people and become the most consultative, open and transparent government in Canada. However, the gag order he recently imposed on Vancouver staff is making a mockery of this commitment. The real question is why every single member of Robertson's caucus remains silent as they watch their cherished Vision party fray at the edges.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: It appears Allen Garr has taken an interest in the gag order issue and posted the following excerpt at the bottom of his column today. It's astounding. The release of this information is clearly going to warrant further investigation on so many fronts.
"Two years into this administration and unhappy employees continue to bail out of city hall. The most recent evacuee was the much respected Freedom Of Information officer Paul Hancock. The 42-year-old lawyer went on the record for the first time this week when he told me this troubling reason for why he quit: "I was no longer able to fulfill my responsibilities as an FOI manager."
All part, I suspect, of Vision's unprecedented gag orders being placed on the public service at city hall.
Hard to see how Penny Ballem and Gregor Robertson are going to spin their way out of this one? It's a doozie.
- Post by Daniel