Some bureaucrats unmuzzled in #GreyestCity

Vancouver city hall clampdown eased post-election, but still short of 1997 "open environment" media policy

A surprise announcement from Vancouver city hall’s communications office on Dec. 5, sent to some of those who cover city hall. For some reason or another, it didn’t find its way into my email box.

Said the message from communications director Rena Kendall-Craden: “One thing we have heard from some of you is a desire to have more access to senior staff on files that you are working on. In response to this I am happy to let you know that we have made arrangements to provide easier access to city spokespeople.”

More than 30 senior bureaucrats are on this list and are now available to respond to media phone calls and email queries. A welcome move to re-open the channels of communication that were so rudely shut down by the power hungry Vision Vancouver administration that promised to be kinder when first elected in 2008.

The list oddly doesn’t include city clerk Janice MacKenzie, chief purchasing officer Nick Kassam or Cheryl Nelms, the recently hired director of project and quality management. Evidently, they’re still off-limits for interviews. (Mustn’t forget how the city clerk’s office illegally withheld information on the deadline day for election candidates, how secretive the procurement process has become under Vision Vancouver and that it hired a privatization specialist, after promising its outside workers union that it wouldn’t contract out.)

Nothing revolutionary. The strategy was suggested in a November 2010 memo by Kendall-Craden’s predecessor, Mairi Welman. Then, a year later, city manager Penny Ballem replaced the 1997 media policy with a new one, making the communications office the point of contact. As the calendar progressed toward the 2014 election, bureaucrats were effectively banned from talking directly to the media. Only in isolated and highly controlled situations did the media get access. More often than not, we didn’t get interviews, but instead carefully worded, manufactured statements from the communications office, the one that cost $1.6 million to employ 33 people last year.

This story by Mike Howell in the Vancouver Courier (“City’s restrictive media policy ‘attempt to manipulate public knowledge'”) and this story by Stanley Tromp in the Province (“Political rivals take aim at Vision stonewalling”) offer primers on the fundamental importance of media access to city hall and the overall transparency deficit that unsuccessful NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe campaigned against.

Kendall-Craden’s announcement on Dec. 5 came just three days before the swearing-in, for a third time, of Mayor Gregor Robertson and the rest of city council. The same Vision Vancouver leader who promised openness at city hall at his Dec. 8, 2008 swearing-in — he even said “I will not let you down” — but still hasn’t delivered. Newspapers Canada gave the FOI office under Vision Vancouver a C overall and F for late responses in its 2014 audit. City hall lost several appeals to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. LaPointe promised to bring a new era of sunshine into city hall, with things like a routine disclosure bylaw, ombudsperson, lobbyist registry and permit city employees to speak freely. Alas, he lost the election and Vision maintained a city council majority, but some city employees are getting a chance to speak. Is it anything more than window-dressing? Is Robertson really sorry for the secrecy or is this an attempt to placate some in the media?

To consider the history of city hall’s media policies, I asked Kendall-Craden for a copy of the old one. She forwarded the message to communications manager Tobin Postma. “It is my understanding that those policies are outdated and no longer valid which is why they are not available on the city’s website,” Postma wrote.

Luckily, I had made a request for it in 2009 when I was with Sun Media’s 24 Hours and the FOI office dutifully sent me a duplicate. The Feb. 11, 1997-dated media policy included this noble Policy Statement:

“The City of Vancouver is an open environment and acts cooperatively with news media pursuing stories in the public interest. This is a guiding principle in our relations with news media.”

It also said the city “encourages a decentralized model for speaking to the media. The reason for this is that media want to speak to an expert on a particular issue, not a public relations person. And these experts usually reside at a local, departmental level.”

Under the heading, “Media Calls are important,” it said:

Media calls must be given a high priority and should be dealt with quickly at every level of the organization. Reasons for this include:
•    Media are always on deadline, which may be a matter of days or weeks for a magazine reporter or, quite literally, minutes for radio reporters.
•    If the City is not able to get out its side of a story, the media will often publish or broadcast whatever opinion it has managed to gather.
•    The media are customers, and the treatment they receive is reflected in a very public way.
If an answer to a question cannot be found quickly, the media should be informed.

There was even an appendix called “When the Media Call”  a handy two-page, 10-point guide for bureaucrats on dealing with reporters.

The replacement in November 2011 (the precise day was not included) completely removed that noble 1997 policy statement and Media Calls are Important Section, and replaced it with:

“All media relations activities are coordinated through the Corporate Communications office. To ensure the timely and consistent presentation of information, all inquiries from the media to City departments and staff must be referred to the media relations staff in Corporate Communications. Communications staff will contact the reporter, determine their needs and deadline and then support the designated spokesperson or subject matter expert to prepare the necessary information and do the interview.”

The 2011 policy supposedly designated certain members of staff as media spokespersons, general managers and their designates. A list was supposed to be available from the Corporate Communications office. Three years later, in December 2014, we now finally have that list and the communications office has removed the muzzles from some senior bureaucrats.

Mustn’t forget that an election happened Nov. 15 and Vision Vancouver got another four years in office. Why didn’t the relaxing of the media access ban happen before the election? (According to Ballem’s April 16, 2014 memo to Mayor and Council, Kendall-Craden had canvassed eight unidentified reporters who complained about lack of access.) Will access become restricted again sometime in December 2017 or January 2018, when Vision Vancouver sets its sights on the October 2018 election?

Both the media and public should expect and demand full access.

I’m reminded of a quote by Robin Morgan: “Knowledge is power. Information is power. The secreting or hoarding of knowledge or information may be an act of tyranny camouflaged as humility.”

Communications is one of the three Cs in a key military strategy adopted by the corporate world. The other two? Command (the functional exercise of authority, based upon knowledge, to attain an objective or goal) and control (the process of verifying and correcting activity such that the objective or goal of command is accomplished).

Mobile users click here -> City of Vancouver’s 1997 media policy

Mobile users click here ->City of Vancouver: When the Media Call

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