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New Vancouver city hall rule: Staff should be seen but not heard

November 22nd, 2010 · 62 Comments

I’ve seen three new councils come in to city hall in the past eight years and every one has experienced some discomfort about the way reporters go to staff for information, information that is occasionally at odds with what the councillors are saying.

There’s occasional grumbling about the level of power they seem to exert. (One political staffer noted bitterly that an advertisement for city staff used the slogan at one point, “We run the city.”) But by and large, the new councils have adapted and come to grips with the fact that the thousands of bureaucrats they allegedly oversee actually know something and are excellent public-relations ambassadors for the city.

They give reporters explanations about complex issues and they do it in a way that removes some of the politicization from particularly contentious initiatives. (Note how council recently made sure to send out their engineers to explain the process of designing and building the Hornby Street bike lane during public consultations.)

But apparently things are changing at the hall. I called three planners last week to talk about a relatively innocuous report going to council last Thursday: a report about efforts to deal with noise around the two stadiums that will impact the 7,000 people who will eventually move in there. Important note: This was not a controversial report or one that was likely to split on political lines or one that was likely to set off any more neighbourhood commentary than already existed.

It’s the kind of call I’ve made hundreds of times over the past decade and a half, as have many in the city, which the city has always made easy for anyone to do by printing the names and phone numbers of the people who wrote the report at the top.

But I didn’t get a call back from any of those planners, as I normally would. Instead, I got a call from communications officer Wendy Stewart, who explained to me that I wouldn’t be getting any calls back.

That’s because it has created some awkward moments in the past, she said, when reporters have done stories about reports, quoting staff, and councillors have had to scramble to catch up. (I’m not quoting verbatim because Wendy called when I was walking around on the street and didn’t have my notebook with me.)

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 I’ve had staff on occasion ask me not to mention to any councillors that I’ve even been talking to them (let alone quoting them in stories), as those councillors apparently get upset when they something to me and I say, “Well, that’s not what I’ve heard from Planner X or Engineer Y.”

As well, I understand that one of the areas of conflict around former FOI officer Paul Hancock was that he would release FOI documents that were requested by media without notifying anyone else at city hall. That also occasionally created embarrassing moments, when councillors were being asked to comment on released documents that they didn’t know anything about.

The plan for the future is to have a notification system internally, so that everyone is briefed and ready to go when an FOI document is released. (I’ve checked with Darrell Evans of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association and apparently this is not illegal, as long as there is no interference with the request.)

I can understand the Vision team wanting to figure out new ways to deal with messaging. They’ve facing a new, energetic and unusual kind of opposition in, two former staffers in Sam Sullivan’s office who have used their insider knowledge of city hall to get information, through FOI and other means.

But in their struggle for control, they’ve gone too far. In the past, it’s been accepted practice that reporters wait until city reporters are posted online before calling councillors (even if we knew about them in advance), to give councillors a chance to read them before getting calls.

But this goes beyond that. Now staff can’t even comment once the report is out, so as to give councillors the stage to themselves where they may or may not be delivering accurate information. (I note that the bureaucrat to whom this does not apply is Penny Ballem, who usually takes over doing the actual explaining of complex issues once Mayor Gregor Robertson has delivered his crafted message on whatever the topic at hand is.)

The bureaucrats at city hall are knowledgeable professionals, whose efforts to explain difficult issues for reporters have only worked to the city’s benefit.

If councillors are concerned because they sometimes appear to be less knowledgeable than their staff or even at odds with them, I’d suggest that the solution is not telling staff they can’t speak.

Categories: City Hall Talk