Comment from Voices: This article from the Editor of The Province cites examples very familiar to residents in the City of North Van, particularly this quote ‘the most secretive and least genuinely consultative city government in living history’. The most recent example in the CNV is the attempt to cancel public input at Council meetings.
After winning office in 2008 on promises that included providing Vancouver with open government and listening to citizens, Mayor Gregor Robertson and his party of activists quickly and infamously transformed Vancouver city hall into the most secretive and least genuinely consultative city government in living history. This is not much in dispute; even the mayor admitted in the last election that he hadn’t listened enough to citizens, vowing to do better.
Under Vision, projects are routinely shoved down the throats of neighbourhoods over the objections of the majority after pro forma public hearings; announcements are timed to limit debate (like the recent Burrard Bridge plan); slanted reports are generated to prop up the party’s platform (like the recent transportation report); budget documents are written as opaquely as possible; reporters’ access to senior staff and information are curtailed (unless you’re considered to be friendly to Vision); there has been a huge expansion of city hall’s public-relations team to spew out propaganda; and I’ve lost track of the number of issues that have ended up in the courts because of Vision’s apparent inability to reach compromise with other city groups.
Under Vision, city hall has become the Kremlin on Cambie.
Robertson’s gang are not alone in using these grotesquely undemocratic methods — many of which they have poached from their U.S. political allies — to control information and limit debate. Other Canadian governments, including the current ones in Ottawa and Victoria, obsessively control information and keep secrets from the public. And the methods are not new, but are practised nowadays to a greater extent.
While Vision and the city hall bureaucracy under their control have long been cloaked in a veil of secrecy, until now, as far I can recall, they have not been caught providing misinformation. But Tobin Postma, the city’s main spokesman, has done it at least twice in the past two months over issues of significant concern to the public — road and bridge closures.
In mid April, the marijuana activists behind the 4/20 event in downtown Vancouver put out a press release thanking the city for agreeing to shut down Howe and Robson streets for their event in the middle of a business day so that they could set up booths in the streets to sell marijuana-related products. I thought it more than a little strange that city hall was co-operating so sweetly with lawbreakers.
I tried, but could not find on the city’s information-obscuring website, information about the closure, so I left a voice message with the city’s media-relations department seeking clarification on whether the streets would be closed and when — Howe Street, in particular, given that it’s a major artery out of downtown and on to Granville Bridge. Silly me, I thought the public should have the right to know about such a significant inconvenience.
At 10:03 a.m. on Friday, April 17, I received this email from Postma in reply to the basic questions in my voice-mail message: “We proactively close some streets to address the public safety concerns resulting in having many people on the site and on the streets. Hope this helps.”
Two minutes later, I wrote him back: “No, it doesn’t. Which streets are closed and when?”
At 10:08 he replied (and I provide his emails here without editing): “Partial closure of 700 Howe (between Robson and Georgia) starting at 9 a.m.
“Full closure of 800 Robson (between Hornby and How) starting at 9 a.m.
“These closures are to address public safety concerns.”
I tried again at 10:13 a.m., finding the lack of a straight answer pretty tedious: “And when does closure end? And what do you mean, partial closure? Total closure for certain times or all but one lane or something else?
He replied at 10:14 a.m.: “Closures will end once crowds begin to disperse.
“Partial means that entrance to Pacific Centre underground parking will stay open.”
Really? The city’s chief spokesman thinks that allowing people to enter the parking lot of a large private mall while entirely shutting down a street qualifies as a “partial” closure of that street?
I tried again at 10:29 a.m.: “And that (the dispersal of crowds) will occur roughly when? So, otherwise, Howe, the major street leading to the Granville Bridge, will be entirely shut?
At 10:35 a.m. Postma replied: “One block of Howe Street will be closed (between Robson and Georgia).
“I cannot give you a time estimate as it depends on the crowd but we would hope to have it open in time for the evening rush hour.”
I think I laughed out loud at the absurdity of that answer and replied at 10:40 a.m.: “Given that 4:20 in the afternoon is an important time for the event, I have trouble believing the afternoon rush hour won’t be a nightmare.”
At 10:44 a.m. Postma replied again, having spent likely an hour dealing with a simple question while refusing to give a straight answer: “Our special events team work very closely with VPD to ensure impacts are as minor as possible.
“We will be sending out a traffic advisory that day to remind motorists of the closures.”
As relieved as I was that city hall was going to give citizens virtually zero notice that they would be, with their decision, turning the streets of the downtown core into a virtual parking lot, my feelings moved to something else when later that day I discovered a map posted on the city’s website showing that Howe would be closed all day April 20 until 10 p.m. so that the city’s potheads could party.
It seemed odd that the city’s chief spokesman didn’t know that the road would be closed until 10 p.m. So was he lying or just hopelessly mistaken?
I wouldn’t have given the exchange another thought until I learned last week that our city editor had a similar encounter with Postma.
Last month, the paper learned through two independent sources that the Burrard Bridge would be closed June 21 for a mass yoga event. The editor contacted Postma, who said there was no such plan.
On Friday, Premier Christy Clark announced that the bridge would be closed for part of June 21 as part of International Yoga Day celebrations. When contacted that day, Postma again denied there would be a closure:
“I’ve spoken to our engineering, streets and special events departments and there are no plans to shut down Burrard Bridge between now and June 21.”
The editor then told Postma that the premier had announced it would be closed. Postma then told the editor to read his email and that between now and June 21 meant between now and midnight June 20.
He also said: “Things changed, the event was finalized between May 27 and now, from what I am aware.”
When asked who he contacted May 27 for confirmation about whether the bridge would be closed, Postma said “city staff.” He also said that the city’s “special events people” had dealt with Clark’s office, adding that he couldn’t recall if he had contacted the city’s events folks when he denied May 27 that the bridge would be closed.
But here’s the worst part of Postma’s June 5 comments — he said of the editor, and presumably the newspaper, “clearly you have something against us.”
This is worrisome for many reasons. Who does Postma mean by “us?” City hall or Vision Vancouver? Who is Postma working for? Vancouver citizens or his political masters?
His “us” comment and vague and misleading answers suggest he’s not acting, as he should as someone paid by taxpayers, as a neutral, professional civil servant. He sounds like a Vision apparatchik, mis-stating or misleading citizens about news that will result in negative stories about his bosses, such as unpopular bridge and road closures.
On Tuesday afternoon, Postma apologized to The Province for his comments.
When parties fill the civil service with political fellow travellers, as Vision has done from Day 1, in fact purging long-serving bureaucrats with the “wrong” views, citizens who have problems with government decisions don’t have a hope, and we lose a considerable part of our democracy.
The media’s most fundamental role in a democracy is to question government and get answers for citizens. The spokesman for a city government should understand that and not get snippy about such basic questions. Civil servants who do not understand that should resign.
It’s one thing for governments and officials not to comment about something, but when they mis-state, mislead or lie to journalists they are effectively doing it to citizens. How can anyone trust what they say in future?
Gordon Clark is the editorial pages editor and a columnist.