Vancouver City Hall has now centralized all of their messaging
As we thankfully enter the final twelve months of what some refer to as Vision Vancouver's reign of error, it's pretty clear that City Manager Penny Ballem & her Vision masters are moving into hunker down mode. What else could explain why Ballem has slapped a gag order on her staff and restricted them from speaking to lowly bloggers or mainstream media?
Goodbye, City Hall. Hello, City Hall-itburo.
So exactly why is Ballem moving to nano-manage information coming out of City Hall? Well, it's obvious she wants to prevent any bad news coming out of 12th & Cambie in order help her Vision political masters get re-elected to another term. Luckily for her, Paul Hancock, one of the most non-partisan and brightest public servants at the Hall, has quit his position as the City's former FOI officer.
I say Ballem is lucky because Hancock was no pushover when it came to properly administering FOI legislation. With him out of the picture, Ballem will have a much easier time thwarting pesky requests for access to information [for your information, on average CityCaucus places about one FOI request per month].
As a former Deputy Minister, Ballem would be fully aware of how long it can take to appeal decisions by the City to restrict access to information. In fact, if you disagree with the City's decision to restrict access to information, it can take well over a year to get a final decision by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. Coincidentally, this will now take you just past the next civic election.
Since Hancock's departure, we've already begun to see Ballem's fingerprints all over a couple of our older FOI requests. The first FOI we placed related to a conversation that Ballem allegedly had with a senior staffer. Our sources tell us she was upset with how long it was taking to write a particular report. In order to get some action, she apparently decided to get the employee responsible for drafting the report on the phone in order to light a fire under them.
Unfortunately for Ballem, after she chewed out the employee for several minutes, she was advised that on the other end of the phone was actually a group of staff sitting around a conference phone – not just the employee in question. The employee on the receiving end of Ballem's tirade was actually sitting in a room full of her colleagues. This altercation led to the employee's manager Rob Jenkins writing a terse response to Ballem saying that enough is enough. Subsequent to Jenkins' note, Ballem responded with an apologetic letter saying she went too far.
When we heard about this incident, we decided to FOI all of the correspondence between Ballem and Rob Jenkins during this time period to determine exactly what happened. Given how many employees have been quitting at City Hall, we thought it was important to help expose this type of activity if in fact it was happening. This isn't a matter of whether Ballem embarrassed herself, it's clearly evidence of the way City Hall is being managed today, which we believe the public has the right to know about.
Our response letter from the City has just arrived in our inbox and surprise, surprise...about nine pages of correspondence between Jenkins and Ballem for the period in question has been severed from our request. We plan to appeal Ballem's decision to limit our access to this information and expect a final ruling just after the next civic election.
On another front, we asked the City to provide us with more details regarding who is receiving funding from the City Manager's Strategic Initiatives Fund. This is the "slush fund" [this is how Vision used to describe it when former City Manager was at the helm] controlled by Penny Ballem which allows her to undertake various "strategic" projects.
A while ago, we first reported that over $1.2M has been spent in this fund. Despite asking for more details, Ballem only provided us with a high level breakdown of where the money was spent. We then asked a second time for the Clerk's office to provide us with the actual information we requested. This should include a simple excel spreadsheet with a listing of which contractors and companies were on the receiving end of this funding.
These are public monies, so we fully expected this information should be available to us upon request. However, we've just received a letter from the City telling us that if we want to know who got contracts from the Strategic Initiatives "slush" Fund, we will need to fork over $330 bucks.
In fact, Ballem's letter of response says they would like to bill us for 14 hours of labour to get this information. Needless to say, we don't have the money to pay for this, nor do we agree with Ballem's decision. Therefore, our only other option is to appeal this to the BC Privacy Commissioner. Once again, we expect a ruling on this about a month after the next civic election.
Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision colleagues campaigned on a commitment of making Vancouver the most open and transparent government in Canada. Not only have they failed entirely in this commitment, they have created the most opaque and closed administration in memory.
- post by Daniel