Gregor Robertson's gag order a bust with local media

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


Thumbnail image for 24-hrs-silence
The front cover of today's 24 Hours kind of says it all

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.

It’s ridiculous.

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 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


"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."
Maybe because they're a-frayed?

We've heard the Real reason Penny muzzles staff !!
It's so obvious now. They say it's because she doesn't want staff to confuse the media with info in the reports that they write with her versions of the reports, which she forces them to adopt, to be then presented to Council.

Has Vision become so arrogant that they think they don;t need the media? Do they honestly think anyone reads the outlets that still indulge their whims, like The Tyee?

"They keep this up and the NPA can run a cardboard cutout and still win a majority."

Hilarious! By the sounds of it, a cardboard cut out might be the best candidate the NPA can come up.

@Naomi. you may be right. And he'll have a higher IQ than the current bunch combined.

Look for a change at the top.
What a sad transition, from a top notch administrator like Judy Rodgers to such an ill prepared ideologue such as Ballem.


Vision's version of China.

I agree with Vision on this. Why should the media have access to staff whenever they want. Vancouver isn't a tiny fishing village anymore. We're on par with New York and London. It's not unreasonable to have all media requests vetted by the city manager.

All you media types should stop whining and cut Robertson some slack. He's trying to run a city and doesn't have all day to sit back and return your calls. Get over it. I agree with Mairi that you should be going to her office and registering your complaints there rather than airing your dirty laundry in public. How ethical is that?

You may be right. Rumours are spreading everywhere that Ballem is set to bail. Apparently she is applying for jobs back in the medical profession where her training as a hematologist can be put to better use. We jokingly say around here that she's drawn enough blood from all of us at city hall, so time for her to move on to the next conquest.

With Ballem gone who will be there to watch the backs of Vision's other political hires? Hmmmm. Sadhu?

PS I'm proud to be one of the current city staffers delivering the brown envelopes to city caucus. I'm encouraging my colleagues to do more of the same. Gag order or not

"We're on par with New York and London."

That's funny. Could you elaborate in what way? :-D

Vancouver is on par with Mississauga, Ontario. Except Mississauga has less downtrodden, less tolerance for people self "medicating" on the street (0%), less poverty pimps, but more industrial diversity & corporate headquarters providing people with real employment and wages.

But if Penny & co. think Vancouver is on par with New York and London, why are they running the city as if it's a province, or maybe it's own country?


Do the words 'open and transparent government' sound remotely familar to you or the other Vision boosters???

Through their ongoing antics, Vision has lost the respect and support of many Vancovuer citizens.

There is no trust.

And all we have right now is the media to keep the Mayor and Councilors remotely in line.

Being forthright with information is not in Vision's agenda. (so bothersome!)

They are more along the 'keep them dumb and stupid' line of thinking.

Sorry, but it doesn't wash.

Like I posted - this is not China (even though we know Robertson wishes it were) we do not have state controlled media.

Welcome to democracy.

Forgot to add, you may be one of those in the "over ruled" class who enjoy authoritarian autocratic big government.

We have a tradition here in Canada of democracy, and that includes media without sanctioned white wash from those who run our governments and affect our lives.

Matt how can you possibly say you agree with Vision on this and yet contradict the whole point of the story???

The media isn't asking for more access to Gregor or even Ballem. The media would like to speak to the experts in city hall who are actually dealing with the problem. Gregor is free to go gallivanting around the globe and worship every communist leader for having a superior system of government.

The less time he spends in Vancouver, the less damage he can do.

All I'm saying is the media should stop complaining about their lack of access to staff and just do their jobs. There is so much good stuff happening in the city that Vision has done, but they never report it. All we here is negative, negative negative.

We are an international city and we should act like one. If media want access to staff, all they have to do is phone the city manager. Duh! How difficult is that? I don't think Ballem's request is over the top. Not at all. Kudo's to Ballem for streamlining the process for the media and actually making it easier for them to do their jobs.

I am sitting here and scratching my head trying to figure out ...' There is so much good stuff happening in the city that Vision has done, but they never report it.'

So enlighten me - what good stuff has Vision done?

I mean, they did manage to clear and snd the bike lanes, twice yesterdy, while side roads and sidewalks were left in a mess.

And I am reading that they are putting in 720 new parking metres and upping rates in areas in order to balance the budget, even though the respective area BIV's are against it.

As well, the Parks Board in now trying to come up with $1M to balance their budget and city council is not giving them any more money which means service cuts to the general public.

Oh, and the street food carts want to put up tents in order to protect their areas from food, but council has nixed that which means some will have to close down over the winter.

So Matt, what am I missing????

Oh, and the street food carts want to put up tents in order to protect their areas from 'food',

Sorry, I meant the 'weather'


Welcome to george soros marxist world.How about recall!!!

How is this for starters. They have set a target to end homelessness by 2015.

They set a target for us to be the greenest city in the world by 2020

They are keeping business property taxes low by shifting the cost from homeowners to businesses.

They are building separated bike lanes to keep cyclists safe

They are shaking up city hall staff to wake them out of their slumber.

They have slashed budgets at city hall and started trimming the fat left by previous administrations.

They are attracting new businesses here due to the work they did to profile vancouver during the olympics.

They are improving our food security by encouraging pubic gardens that everyone can enjoy.

They are increasing funding to make our parks better.

Would you like more? I could keep going on and on.

Oh yeah one more thing. They have FINALLY brought financial stability to the olympic village development in Vancouver. The mayor said we are going to get our money back. Hard to argue against that logic huh?

I love you guys. lol

In the past few days he's inept, a communist, an eco-fascist, arrogant, a baffoon, dumb, opportunistic bozo, mentally imbalanced...great stuff :)

Oh Matt sound as ridiculous as those claiming he's done nothing but house chickens.

Both sides chill out and grow up!

Matt, have you heard the one about the dyslexic who was afraid of pubic speaking?

BREAKING NEWS: Allen Garr just wrote this today about former FOI manager Paul Hancock who just quit his job at city hall. Quite a shocker.

"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."

From City Caucus:
"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....."

Readers - please click on the word 'states' and go to the link showing the text of her letter. I ask you read the entire letter reserving prejudice. Look particularly at the sentences immediately prior to the ones quoted:

"If you know of any good media policies at other organizations that work particularly well, please send me over a copy or a contact name so that I can follow up. And, if you have ongoing concerns about the way your needs are being met, please let us know."

I seriously doubt a reasonable person could possibly interpret Mairi Welman's response as 'finger-wagging' when she asks for the input of those she addressed the e-mail to. Taken as a whole, it is hard to see how the tone of her e-mail could cause offense.

I do not know Mairi Welman nor do I have dealings with her. I have no political axe to grind with City Caucus, nor any political admiration for the Vision party. This is not meant as a comment on their policy.

However, I am not about to join a dogpile on City Hall's Communication Officer like sheep because I blindly accept the spin out of this blog. Daniel Fontaine's deliberate misinterpretation of Mairi Welman's response seriously weakens his own position.

Think about this for one moment:

If you were a communications officer for a large organization, and you asked members of the media for their input going forward as Ms. Welman has done, wouldn't you think twice about whether or how to now assist this particular journalist, given his response was to publicly call you an unhelpful finger-wagger?

there was absolutely nothing wrong with the old system of communication. Reports came out, lots of detail that council rarely read (either because of time, lack of interest or whatever). Implications of those reports are what public conversation should be about. Who is suppose to give that clarification? Who is supposed to hold elected officials to account if there is nobody with any expertise allowed to answer legitimate questions.

Let's dumb it all down, keep everyone in the dark so a majority civic government can do whatever it pleases without any informed questioning?

sounds scary.

Julia they don't call her Powerpoint Penny for nothing. She doesn't like detailed reports to go public, just powerpoint presentations please. Keep in niiiiiiice and simple for all of us dummies. Good observation on your part.

LOL, I have seen a few - masterful. Tough to ask questions when the powerpoint is a one way conversation and it is 3 minutes before a vote.

Matt, bottom line in this issue is: if you don't have something to hide, you don't have to gag the messengers.

You sound like Jonathan Ross.

"They have set a target to end homelessness by 2015.
They set a target for us to be the greenest city in the world by 2020"
Nice targets. Neither one of them is going to happen.Homelessness, because it's a bottomless money pit, greenest city because large third world cities have too large of a headstart...

"They are keeping business property taxes low by shifting the cost from homeowners to businesses." There's a popular policy-NOT...especially as the OV disaster works it's way through the system.

" lanes to keep cyclists safe"
Bike lanes are an ideological/engineering disaster area, whose design ensures an increase in bike/car conflicts and more serious injuries/deaths from those conflicts.

"Slashed budgets". Oh, please. That's a statutory requirement resulting from the recession and misguided spending on things like bike lanes (about $8 million dollars this year alone) and unnecessary office renovations,etc etc.

"Attracting new businesses"...? Name one.

"Improving our food security"...with private gardens? Insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

"Increasing funding to make our parks better". What happened to summer programs for kids this summer? It's going to be worse next summer.

"I could keep going on and on." Like diahrrea.

If Hancock does confirm that vision through their city manager tried to thwart privacy legislation, we are talking about a major scandal here. That's a very serious offense and Robertson will not be able to run from this one.

It's clear vision have pissed off all the media in town and now their former FOI manager says somebody was preventing him from doing his job. Now just who could that be pretel? This story has legs and we haven't heard the last of it. Could be the beginning of the end for this horrible administration. One can only hope. Too bad we don't have any opposition at city hall

Except for one thing. This blog is a free and open forum for public debate. Contrast that to this City Council's behaviour.

I don't dispute your point - as I said previously my issue is not with the Vision policy.

I will however take issue with this or any piece which employs false logic or attempts to mislead in order to score its points (and this piece does that right near the end)

My rational is two-fold:
a) there's enough free points to be scored against the current political administration without resorting to those kind of cheap 'tricks' and
b) eliminating false logic and misleading passages from the piece would allow the facts to speak for themselves, strengthening the writer's argument - making it more difficult for the reader to dismiss the piece

It is easy to preach to the choir.

But if the rest of the audience goes home before the end of the piece, what does it say about the choirmaster?

"if you don't have something to hide, you don't have to gag the messengers."

Careful with that line of thinking Bill...

BREAKING NEWS: Suzanne Anton has just sent out this news release to media this morning.

For immediate release:
November 27, 2010


“The public has the right to know the circumstances of why Vancouver’s Information & Privacy Officer left his post,” says Anton.

Vancouver, BC – NPA City Councillor Suzanne Anton has made an urgent request to the Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, The Hon. Stephanie Cadieux, as well as BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham asking for a review of circumstances surrounding the untimely departure of Vancouver’s respected Freedom of Information and Privacy Manager, Mr. Paul Hancock.

In response to a question from a local political columnist as to why he quit City Hall, the former Information Officer Paul Hancock stated, “I was no longer able to fulfill my responsibilities as an FOI manager.”

“The departure of Mr. Hancock in this manner is deeply concerning,” comments Anton. “An independent review by the Province would permit Mr. Hancock to explain why we’re seeing these continuing violations of the Privacy Act.”

Hancock, a 42-year-old lawyer whose performance as Vancouver’s Freedom of Information officer was a model of principled, honourable, and non-partisan public service. He quit the City earlier this month.

“City Hall has been turned into a sealed fortress,” says Anton. “Access to public information is one of our fundamental democratic rights, and we should take all measures to protect it.”

In recent days several City Hall reporters have commented on a gag order which is restricting access to information, and preventing employees from providing technical briefings.

“We’ve heard from several media who are speaking out about this information blackout,” adds Anton. “I hope the attention that our media have brought to this issue will help to bring back openness and transparency at City Hall.”

Next week Coun. Anton will be presenting a motion to city council requesting that the gag order on employees be lifted, and that the position of the Freedom of Information and Privacy manager be filled.


If it's so urgent, why did she wait until now? She is so reactive it's funny.

I suspect it has to do with Hancock's statement only being made public yesterday. Up until now, he has not gone on the record.

As you will have noted, even Allen Garr said his comments were "troubling". Or you could say they will cause trouble for Vision?

We all know how that 'motion' will go.

Gregor will get that look of consitpation on his face, you know the one - we see it every time someone confronts their plan.

Reimer will 'tweet' something stupid which will be picked up in MSM and continue the assumption the girl is not that bright.

Woodsworth will be chewing gum (or whatever) like a cow.

10 to 1 Cadman won't be there.

Meggs will go into some condescending tirade.

Louie will join with Meggs as dogs do travel in packs and attack Anton and perhaps provide yet another theatrical performance. (Get the popcorn ready!)

Stevenson won't mutter a word - he is too busy planning his tour trips while attending the 'Leadership' conference in Washington. ( Stevenson at a leadership conference, give me a break and don't make me pay for it!)

Jang will sound off in his passive aggressive tone.

And Deal, well, perhaps she will get another kick at the can chairing the end of the meeting. Lord knows she needs the practice.

Not on this topic - but of interest:

Vivian Krause tells Gregor Robertson that she's not part of a campaign to besmirch Tides Canada

....'Robertson, a former director of the Tides Canada Foundation, told the Straight yesterday (November 25) that there are "ideological witch hunts" underway to demonize people trying to improve the world.'

For those interested, please see my op-ed on the Straight On-Line: "City Hall democracy has suffered under Vision Vancouver".

We should all be very interested,our Democratic society depends on it... Thanks Bill

Max you've outdone yourself. You put a big smile on my face this morning. This was too funny!

Check out!

Paid Advertisement

Paid Advertisement