With the civic election rapidly approaching on Nov. 15, Vancouver’s ruling party Vision Vancouver is under fire from citizens, opposing politicians and media alike for the way it communicates and obfuscates.
Stories last year by Peter Ladner in Business in Vancouver and this year by Mike Howell in the Vancouver Courier cast a critical eye on the city’s expansive communications department and its restrictive, anti-democratic media policies. Some 33 people were paid $1.6 million last year to run the propaganda division of the “Hallitburo.” Sam Cooper in The Province revealed what some of them say behind the backs of journalists.
In September 2013, Angus Reid’s Vision Critical was hired to run the Talk Vancouver citizen-polling website for two years at $152,000. The contract was more than double the $75,000 threshold required for public tendering, yet no other company on the list of preferred suppliers was considered for the job. This was supposedly the brainchild of the Engaged City task force, but the Vision Critical deal was already in the works before the sham panel did its May 2013 photo op, complete with a document not worth the paper it was printed on.
Citizen groups across the city have filed more than a dozen lawsuits in B.C. Supreme Court, asking judges to overturn a variety of city council decisions or indecisions. For instance, False Creek Residents Association is battling for a long-promised park in Northeast False Creek and the Community Association of New Yaletown is contesting a secret land swap.
The Freedom of Information office is shambolic, a product of political interference and influence. Newspapers Canada gave it a C overall but an F for slow responses. In September, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ordered city hall to stop fooling around and cough up documents about bidding for a civic contract and engineering reports about the decaying Burrard Bridge. The adjudicators had harsh words for the city. In the former case, Caitlin Lemiski said the city relied on “bald assertions.” In the latter case, Hamish Flanagan noted that city hall claimed it needed to keep information secret about the Burrard Bridge for fear of terrorism. Thankfully, reason beat rhetoric and those documents are supposed to be coming my way by Hallowe’en.
All of this, brought to you by Mayor Gregor Robertson, who, at his 2008 swearing-in, pledged: “I will not let you down on making city hall more open and accountable.”
Robertson’s chief campaign rival, veteran journalist and media manager Kirk LaPointe of the NPA, is chomping at the bit to make Robertson accountable for the overwhelming secrecy and spin at 12th and Cambie.
Only in Lotusland does a political party widely accused of being blind and deaf to citizens and economical with the truth (but not with its spending) call itself “Vision” Vancouver.
So it came as a surprise when I saw the program for the Sept. 27-30 International Association for Public Participation North American conference in Winnipeg. It included a presentation by a duo who flew all the from Vancouver city hall on the taxpayer’s dime.
“IAP2” (as it is also called) has a code of ethics for members that talks about trust, openness and even respect for communities (“we will avoid strategies that risk polarizing community interests or that appear to ‘divide and conquer'”).
City of Vancouver’s Tracy Vaughan and Amanda Mitchell delivered the seminar titled “Building Social Capital in an Attention-Deficit Democracy: Vancouver’s public engagement strategy.” (See the presentation below.)
The presentation climaxed with a summary of the City Bird Competition, in which the black-capped chickadee was named most-popular in an online poll. The slides make no mention of the city hall information clampdown or the lawsuits, issues that demonstrate the city hall public engagement strategy isn’t really working.
Who are Vaughan and Mitchell? The conference program says this:
Tracy Vaughan, City of Vancouver Sr. Public Engagement Advisor, holds a Masters in Urban Studies from Simon Fraser University and came to the City from the private sector as a sustainability planner with HB Lanarc Consultants. Tracy has worked closely with municipalities and senior governments in BC for the last eight years and brings a wealth of experience with an array of outreach tools and techniques, project and team management, strategic engagement design and implementation, and new media management.
Amanda Mitchell, Public Engagement
Specialist, has a keen interest in the use of social media, online consultation tools and creative engagement strategies to enhance community participation in policy creation. She has worked at the City of Vancouver since 2010 and has been involved in many consultations, including the award-winning Greenest City Action Plan. Through her experience working with municipalities on long range sustainability plans at Smart Growth BC and the Design Centre for Sustainability at UBC, Amanda developed an expertise in creating meaningful public consultation processes. She holds a BSc in Environmental Science from the University of Guelph and a Masters of Advanced Studies in Architecture from UBC.
How much did it cost the taxpayers? City hall’s Tobin Postma claimed the trip was budgeted at $1,500. (The receipts and expenses reports await filing, so the final cost is unknown for now):
“As members of the public engagement team, Tracy Vaughan and Amanda Mitchell are attending the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) conference in order to present best practice from the City of Vancouver’s use of social media as a tool for engaging residents. The estimated cost ($1,500) of this learning opportunity will be covered by the staff development and training budget of the City of Vancouver. They are not receiving any appearance fees and no one else from the City is attending.”
A third city spinner, Jhenifer Pabillano, was on the program, but did not travel to Winnipeg. Her bio in the convention program calls her “the key voice behind the city’s main Twitter and Facebook presences.”
In addition to all the gabbing and hobnobbing by the panoply of public participation peeps in the ‘Peg, the conference included chances to get out and about in the Manitoba capital. Early autumn is a pleasant time to be in the Gateway to the West. There were optional trips to see the Winnipeg Blue Bombers play at Investors Group Field, a walking tour of the historic Exchange District, a visit to the Churchill polar bear exhibit at the Winnipeg Zoo and tours of the Manitoba Museum and recently opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights.