Dodging the question

By Stephen Andrew, September 2013

How politicians avoid journalists’ and voters’ questions.

What you are meant to be reading in this space is an article on one man’s quest to revisit the City of Victoria’s bylaw pertaining to skateboarding in the Downtown core. As the bylaw currently exists, it’s against the law to ride a skateboard and if you do, police and bylaw officers can issue a $75 fine and confiscate the skateboard. But, according to Victoria’s Mayor Dean Fortin, it’s an inappropriate topic right now.

Victoria skateboarder Jake Warren expects that by the time this column is published, he will have gathered more than 3000 signatures on a petition, enough he hopes to encourage City council to change the bylaw to allow boarders to ride in bike lanes. He’s incensed that in a city where people are encouraged to get out of their cars and use more environmentally-friendly modes of transportation that the City of Victoria hasn’t looked at this issue sooner. He is also upset that he’s been riding a board since he was a kid and the 42-year-old wants to continue riding it, presumably until he has to turn it in for one of the many electric-powered wheelchairs being driven across Victoria.

Warren began his mission after he was stopped by bylaw officers in early June while on his way home after work. Warren acknowledges that he should not have been riding his board on Yates Street, but he objects to paying more than $80 to get his skateboard out of the impound, in addition to paying the fine.

As part of his campaign to revisit the bylaw, he has been talking to municipal politicians, including meeting with Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin.

So, what does the Mayor feel about Warren’s chances? He’s not talking. “The Mayor is working on something and he feels it would be inappropriate to talk,” his executive assistant replied, after a request for an interview. What he’s working on, or what he believes should happen to the bylaw, for the moment, will remain a mystery.

That kind of response is a growing and troubling trend from public officials. It’s an extension of responses like, “It’s before the courts and it would be inappropriate for me to comment”, “It’s under investigation so I can’t say anything publicly”, “We are waiting for a review and until I see it I don’t want to comment,” or when they are really stretching to avoid talking about a certain issue, “This may become part of an investigation or court action, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment.”

Of course, what they should really be saying is, “It’s the last thing I want to talk about because it might cause embarrassment,” or “I really have no satisfactory answer for you right now, so I’m simply going to dodge your question until I come up with one.”

For politicians and public servants, journalists asking questions can be an irritant in their day. But, what they are missing by taking this approach is a fundamental principal of being accountable to the very people who pay their wages. Journalists ask questions so they can report back to their readers, viewers and listeners. Journalists are an extension of voter or taxpayer accountability.

Provincial politicians, especially from the government benches, have also learned to avoid answering questions by simply not showing up for work. The Clark government, after spending an election touting to be the best BC has to offer, spends very little time sitting in the Legislature, being accountable to the very people who put them there.

When the house is in session, journalists have the opportunity to stop politicians in the halls and ask questions. Often the exchange is tough, with numerous questions about an issue that has come to light and, for the most part, the politicians answer.

But without the Legislature in session, journalists have to rely on politicians agreeing to be interviewed, or on a written statement provided by someone in public relations.

Municipal politicians have also learned, it’s all about timing. As the debate over sewage raged on earlier this year, many politicians refused to comment until after the election was over. The Capital Regional District said it wanted public input on its plan to build a biosolids treatment centre on Viewfield Road in Esquimalt, but not during the election campaign.

Of course, it knew as did everyone else in the region, the public outcry over the idea was so great, that the millions it had spent to acquire the Viewfield Road land was too much and the CRD would have to look elsewhere. But for weeks it was “inappropriate to comment” or listen to the public. Yet, while it wasn’t consulting the public, the CRD was working on its message; crafting a communications plan that might, just might, convince the public it was wrong.

 

Politicians have learned that when they do talk, the cost to their political lives can be extreme. Careers have been all but over when a politician “steps in it” following an admission, or a phrase out of turn. It’s perhaps why there has never been a full accounting of why the government paid out $6 million to cover the defense of former provincial government aides Dave Basi and Bobby Virk. The pair pleaded guilty to breach of trust and fraud in the BC Rail scandal following a dramatic raid on the legislature. Citing privacy concerns and lawyer-client privilege, the government has consistently refused to talk about the issue. No one outside a very closed legal circle knows why the government thought it was reasonable to spend millions of taxpayers’ money on a deal that may remain secret forever. 

It’s possible BC’s Auditor General will provide some idea of what’s going on, but given the failed court challenges to get the province to open the books, it’s doubtful. Ask the government what happened, and of course you are likely to hear the familiar refrain: “We can’t comment, it’s a legal matter—don’t you know.”

There is an argument to be made, that if the government did talk, it could open the floodgates: Every Tom, Dick and Harriet would be clambering at the door to get the province to pay their legal bills. Doubtful, but even so, shouldn’t taxpayers know what wisdom led to the decision?

It’s fair that some reasonable settlements should remain out of the public eye. For instance, the money paid to settle the lawsuit filed by Willow Kinloch against the City of Victoria for being tied up in a cell for hours. Or the action by Thomas McKay, the man who now lives with a significant brain injury after being taken the ground while in police cells. But still, taxpayers are dolling out the money for these settlements; they just don’t know why.

But a legal settlement is a far cry from an inquiry to a civic leader on an issue of public policy and interest.

It might be uncomfortable for Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin to talk about the issue of skateboarding in his city, but he should still talk. The issue is not going to go away as the current council gets ready to enter the final year of its mandate.

Jake Warren, the man spearheading a bylaw change for skateboarders, is surprised that Fortin is refusing to talk. “There was nothing he said in his meeting with me that would be a problem,” he explains. “[The Mayor] said he was going to do some research on the bylaw and confiscating property, and see what’s happening in other jurisdictions.”

Until Fortin finishes his research we will have to wait. Perhaps it is “inappropriate to comment,” or the cost of talking is just too much for the mayor to bear, as thousands of anti-skateboard supporters rally outside his office.

More than likely, he simply doesn’t have an answer. That’s okay too, but he should just say so.

Stephen Andrew is Victoria journalist whose work has been recognized with numerous national and international awards. See page 52 of this edition for his feature story on BC’s police complaint process. Twitter @Stephen_Andrew