City communications 'absolutely wrong'

By Sam Cooper, The Province [Vancouver, B.C.], Dec. 4, 2013



Vancouver City Hall internal emails, obtained by The Province, suggest an unhealthy convergence between Mayor Gregor Robertson's political communications staff and supposedly impartial bureaucrats who are meant to serve the public.

The emails, sent between the city's political and corporate communication teams in mid-September, were obtained under a freedom of information request. They relate specifically to questions about the rapid growth of Vancouver's communications staff, which has ballooned from nine to about 24 since 2009, when Vision Vancouver took office.

But according to critics such as former NPA mayor Phillip Owen, the email evidence obtained by The Province applies to more than a controversial Vision Vancouver communications policy. They raise questions about an "absolutely wrong" convergence of the bureaucrats and politicians in city hall, which Owen says is bad for democracy and the public's interests.

In the emails, city staff respond to news reports about a motion by NPA Coun. George Affleck, who was asking for a review of the city's communication policy.

In a Sept. 18 email subject line - 'Top Story ... Councillor questioning journalists lack of access to officials' - corporate communications director Mairi Welman wrote to her team and Kevin Quinlan, the director of policy and top communications aide for the mayor, saying: "I will have some key messages later this morning. If any of you are asked about (Affleck's) motion or our response to it the messages should help ... Kevin any support ... your office can provide in countering these dated claims would be helpful."

Welman was the city's corporate communications and engagement director, overseeing about 20 staff members in public relations for city hall. She now works for the District of North Vancouver.

Quinlan, in the mayor's office, has been integral to communications for Vision Vancouver. He worked on a team that helped build Vision from an opposition party at city hall into the largest civic electoral organization in Canada. He also served as deputy communications director on Robertson's successful election campaigns in 2008 and 2011.

At 8:20 a.m. on Sept. 18, Quinlan emailed back to Welman and Robertson's communications aide, Braeden Caley, directing Welman to "send key messages + stats to Braeden who can make sure mayor is prepped."

The next day, on Sept. 19, angered corporate communications staff slammed The Province's report on their department, and Affleck's questions.

Senior public engagement adviser Tracy Vaughan wrote: "Why can't we talk to Coun. Affleck about this ... Are we not able to write up a compelling argument for the work we do and sell ourselves? I know it's political and Affleck may not change his angle ... sorry, it just makes me angry."

The email response from Welman was: "(Province reporter) Sam Cooper is being used politically in the worst way and he doesn't even realize it. Penny (Ballem, the city manager) has asked us not to engage with the media on this as she plans to address it at council ... she usually does a good job of ... making our detractors look like ... political opportunists."

After The Province showed these emails to Affleck, he said he felt "saddened" by staff 's response to his motion, which was eventually passed.

"I am very concerned to hear of a possible connection between the mayor's office, traditionally a very politically charged department, and the communications department, traditionally the Switzerland of city hall," Affleck wrote in a prepared response. "We must ensure that city staff are protected and isolated from the often turbulent world of civic politics."

Asked to weigh in, Owen said he believes an "absolutely wrong and unhealthy" blending of politics and bureaucracy occurred as soon as Robertson was elected, and abruptly fired former city manager Judy Rogers and hired Ballem, a provincial health bureaucrat.

"The place is totally toxic, it is totally controlled starting with Penny Ballem's office," Owen said. "They prearrange these public hearings all the time. All the senior staff people are in cahoots with the politicians."

In the middle of the interview, Owen reached into his pocket diary and pulled out a 2010 Vancouver Magazine clipping featuring a quote that's attributed to Robertson's chief of staff, Mike Magee.

Owen read the quote: "'My thing is to try to empower Penny Ballem as much as possible,' says Magee, 'but we're very insistent that the bureaucracy take directions from the politicians.'" "That quote tells you a lot," Owen said. "Staff shouldn't be off in some secret office developing policy under the direction of the city manager and Mike Magee ... I mean, Penny Ballem and Mike Magee are running the whole show, they've got total control. Gregor Robertson cuts ribbons and gets handed little slips that tell him what to say."

Ballem said she hasn't reviewed the internal emails specifically, but what occurred in this case was appropriate.

"It is very standard to have the mayor's office, on a political question like that, which was clearly directed at Vision Vancouver, to want to know what are the facts," Ballem said in an interview Tuesday.

On the suggestion by critics like Owen that city hall staff have become badly politicized, Ballem categorically denied that is the case. "You are going into politics and I don't do politics," Ballem said. "I'm a public servant, I have served governments of every stripe."

Robertson was asked to comment for this story. In his place, Vision Vancouver Coun. Raymond Louie said that the emails show no evidence of city staff politicization under Robertson's party.

Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said the emails speak to the public's ability to get relevant information in a reasonable time. "It's important because it is the underpinnings of democracy," he said. "Anything that reduces the informal release of information, it's a concern."

Doug McArthur, a Simon Fraser University public policy expert, said political and corporate communications staff in all governments walk a fine line.

"It is not the job of the corporate public servants to advance information in a partisan way or protect (politicians) from partisan opinion," McArthur said. "It is a complicated arrangement."

- City of Vancouver emails cited in this story were obtained by Vancouver freelance journalist Stanley Tromp