Don't worry, be happy

By David Broadland, March 2011

The City of Victoria wants its citizens to believe all is well at City Hall. Just don’t scratch below the yellow paint.

The awesome power of public relations as a tool for making civic governance work better for the governors than the governed was on full display last month in this city. On February 17 the City of Victoria’s Director of Communications Katie Josephson sent out a press release announcing reassuring news for city residents. Under the headline “City Wins Canadian Award for Financial Reporting for Sixth Year in a Row,” Josephson stated, “The Canadian Award for Financial Reporting has been awarded to the City of Victoria for its 2009 Annual Report by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada (GFOA). This is the sixth consecutive year the City has won the prestigious award.”

Josephson’s press release included this comment from Mayor Dean Fortin: “I am pleased to offer congratulations on behalf of Mayor and Council to staff for producing such a fantastic, multi-award winning annual report...The City of Victoria is committed to pursuing operational excellence, and it is important to recognize the people who work so hard every day to achieve it.” 

According to Josephson, “Submissions are judged by impartial members of the GFOA’s Canadian Review Committee on their ability to meet the high standards of the program, and demonstrate a constructive ‘spirit of full disclosure’ to clearly communicate a municipality’s financial story and to motivate potential users and other groups to read the report.”

Josephson’s release went on to say, “The award represents a significant accomplishment by a government and its management.”

The press release was subsequently published broadly on the web. And no wonder; it sounded like Victoria had just won the equivalent of the Oscar for “Best Government.”

Curious about whether the press release itself was a demonstration of the City’s “spirit of full disclosure,” we asked GFOA spokesperson Jim Phillips how many Canadian cities had competed for the 2009 award and if there were any other winners. Phillips told us “43 Canadian government entities participated”—and 42 had won the award. The one non-winner was “under review” and “may receive the award.”

Last year, the most recent period for which a full list of the “winners” has been made available, “the award” was also won by Saanich, Salmon Arm, Surrey and Saskatoon. And that’s just the places that start with “S”.

One requirement of the GFOA award process is that applicants have an audited annual report. British Columbia’s Community Charter, which sets the rules for how municipal governments operate, requires that every municipality in the province produce an audited annual report. What else, we wondered, is required to “win” the award?

Josephson provided Focus with the City’s award application. On the basis of that it would appear the two main requirements for winning the award are: 1. To fill out a simple three-page entry form, and 2. To send GFOA a cheque for $500 US. Focus estimates the time to fill out the form to be four minutes for someone reasonably familiar with the City of Victoria’s contact information. The $500 US is a reduced price offered to those with GFOA membership, for which the City pays an additional $595 each year.

Asked if she could agree the press release seemed to imply the City was the only winner of the award, Josephson said the release “does not intend to suggest that [the City] is the only recipient.” When asked if she would release a correction or clarification, Josephson simply said “We won’t be issuing a correction.”

The mayor, for his claim that the City’s annual report is “multi-award winning,” ought to be given the Canadian Award for Distinguished Puffery.

 

Whether “the spirit of full disclosure” resides at City Hall in any significant measure is a matter this magazine has been weighing for some months. We’ve been trying to look beyond the smiley faces Josephson’s department has been spinning over City Hall in the hope of finding out what’s really going on.  This is an election year and questions about the choices the current City council and staff  have made about how money is spent, and on what, ought to be raised.

 For example, two years after Delcan’s engineers told the City to fix or replace the Johnson Street Bridge within two years, not one recommendation they made to improve the bridge’s safety or reliability has been undertaken. Before November’s referendum on borrowing to replace the bridge, the City claimed the bridge would have to be closed in 2012 if nothing was done. Closed. So where’s the plan to get through the next four years while a new bridge is being built? What will it cost to make the existing highway bridge safe and reliable during that time? Since the railway bridge is to be demolished early on, what’s going to be done about bicyclists and pedestrians losing most of their safe access over the bridge for four years? And how much is that going to cost? (We’ve asked. So far no response.) 

Then there’s the question of the millions of dollars the City has already spent in its effort to avoid fixing the heritage bridge, including the cost of the long public relations campaign through 2009 and 2010 to support replacement, the cost of the City’s “Yes” campaign, and the cost of the referendum itself. 

In order to obtain hard numbers on these costs, immediately following the City’s referendum on borrowing for a new Johnson Street Bridge, Focus filed four requests for information under provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. We believe that information, along with the supporting documents, ought to be available to the folks who are paying the bills, and would be if the City was truly committed to “full disclosure.”

Three months after filing those requests, we’re still waiting for full disclosure. The City assessed Focus a fee of $1024.50 for providing this information and we paid the required deposit. While we waited, we filed an FOI request for the record of all the fees assessed by the City for FOI requests in the last two years. That recently-obtained record reveals the City has apparently changed its policy regarding assessing fees for requests for information by media outlets, at least if they’re filed by Focus. In the nearly two years previous to our asking for the bridge cost information, the City waived the assessed fee for all but one media request, no matter how hot or cool the subject.

While the City waived their fee for a Times Colonist request on the bridge that included 92 pages of information, the City charged Focus $233.75 for 10 invoices documenting the cost of studies done on the bridge in the first half of 2010.

Rob Woodland, the City’s director of legislative and regulatory services, explained to Focus in a recent letter that the City will not waive their fees on bridge-related FOI requests because “there is not a sufficient ‘public interest’ rationale.”

Whether that’s true or not, one thing is certain: making information more costly is sure to lower demand. From where I stand it seems clear the City is investing more heavily in perception control through public relations than it is in honest disclosure and transparency. The City is saying one thing out of one side of its smiley face and another thing out of the other side. 

David Broadland is the fantastic multi-award-winning publisher of Focus Magazine.