The chief of staff to Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson says he's contemplating legal action after being accused of using taxpayers' dollars to fund a partisan Web site.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Mike Magee claimed that an unnamed former employee of FD Element told lies about him in a September 14 interview on Global TV.
"I’ve been defamed," Magee maintained. "But I don’t want to give more air to the lies that have been created here than are warranted. So there is a legal question and a strategic question."
FD Element obtained an untendered $27,500 contract from the mayor's office to create a personal Web site for Robertson to highlight some of his environmental initiatives.
The former FD Element employee, whose identity was concealed on Global TV, made some astonishing allegations. He claimed that Magee directed the company's principals, Don Millar and Mike Wilson, about content that should go on a private blog operated by Vision Vancouver partisan Jonathan Ross.
"That’s a fabrication and completely false," Magee responded.
Ross's posts on his site, which is called "civicscene", sometimes excoriate critics of the mayor and various journalists. FD Element paid for the creation of civicscene and has employed Ross on contracts to perform something called "conversation mining".
The former FD Element staffer claimed that this was a ruse to hide the real purpose: having Ross produce content at the behest of Magee. The former staffer also alleged that his employer instructed Magee to communicate with Ross via a private e-mail account.
Magee denied this took place. "That is also false," he said.
Late last year, the Straight filed a freedom-of-information request seeking copies of any e-mails that Magee had exchanged with Ross's civicscene site or his company, TDH Strategies, between September 1, 2009 and December 28, 2009. The city responded that Magee had not sent civicscene or TDH Strategies a single e-mail on Magee's city account over that period.
The Straight also filed a freedom-of-information request earlier this summer to determine if the mayor's media assistant, Kevin Quinlan, had uploaded any content from his city-owned computer onto Ross's civicscene site.
The city responded that it was "not feasible [to fulfill the request] using our normal computer hardware and software and technical expertise".
Magee said that the mayor's office is "very scrupulous to make sure that...we’re getting good value for money and that there is no taxpayer dollars that are being used inappropriately".
He emphasized that no tax dollars funded Ross's civicscene site.
Magee also claimed not to know the identity of the former FD Element staffer, but added that the company is aware of who he is.
FD Element's Millar refused to speak to the Straight about the former employee. He said that FD Element employs about eight people.
FD Element initially proposed creating the mayor's site for approximately $14,000. Magee increased the fee to FD Element to $27,500.
"The scope of the work increased significantly," Magee said. "We developed a stand-alone rather than just one page; it was a full stand-alone Web site with video and a database and this whole thing, but the [city's] IT department wasn’t prepared to handle [it]."
Robertson's chief of staff described the coverage of the contract and Ross's blog as "distressing", adding that the media have repeated "clear lies that have been put forward as fact" by the anonymous source.
"It’s not based on any reality," Magee said. He also mentioned that Ross spoke to numerous people about his site, but maintained that the mayor's office had "in no way, shape or form been involved in the creation of this blog".
Earlier this year, another local blog, citycaucus.com, printed a copy of an e-mail from Ross to the hotmail account of Aaron Jasper, the Vision Vancouver chair of the park board. It included a news release that was about to be issued later that day, which featured Jasper's name at the bottom as a contact.
The media statement sent by Ross condemned Green commissioner Stuart Mackinnon for introducing a motion seeking a referendum on keeping cetaceans in captivity. Later, Ross wrote a post on his site criticizing Mackinnon's motion and quoting from Jasper's news release.
The Straight said to Magee: "Somebody might look at that [news release] and draw a conclusion that Jonathan Ross was doing work for Vision politicians. And I’m just wondering, first of all, whether you knew about that e-mail that was sent, and then secondly, what your comment would be on it."
"No, I wasn’t aware of the e-mail," Magee replied. "And as I said, you know, Jonathan has been a Vision member and been around for a while. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me that he’s doing work for the party...in assisting in a volunteer way or in whatever way. The reality, the facts of the matter with respect to the mayor’s office, we have nothing to do with this blog."
Mike Magee on the blogosphere:
Magee expressed concerns about the increasingly common practice of bloggers' posts being repeated in the mainstream media as factually accurate. He claimed that this is "a highly problematic trend that you’re seeing in the U.S. and now being adopted here".
"I don’t think it bodes very well for accurate reporting or an appropriate means of having public discourse about issues," the chief of staff stated. "It has turned into a smearfest and I think that’s a bad turn of events."
The Straight asked if Ross's civicscene has been a participant in this "smearfest".
"I think that all blogs that are dealing with city politics right now have culpability," Magee replied. "Everybody needs to start taking a higher road insofar as how they’re dealing with each other and with the issues that are important to the city."
The Straight then asked that when Magee used the term "all blogs" if he was referring to civicscene as well. "Yes," Magee responded.
When asked if he was going to convey those thoughts to Ross, the chief of staff replied: "I certainly will, you know. I’ll be conveying it to everybody through appropriate means in the media."
He claimed that stories based on anonymous sources, including a recent alleged "mayor's media hit list", are being "fabricated" to harm the mayor's relationship with the media.
"So that’s a great example of a story that’s completely constructed," he added. "There is no reality to it. And any reasonable person looks at it and thinks, 'Why would we do that in the first place?' "
However, he stated that a lot of thought was put into creating the so-called hit list, which was covered in 24 hours.
"Well, every journalist is going to look at it and say, ”˜Why am I on the list or not on the list?'," Magee said.
When asked if he thought that Ross has damaged the mayor’s office’s relationship with the media, he replied that the Global news story was "problematic".
Jonathan Ross's criticism of the Georgia Straight:
Ross has described me as a "borderline journalist". In the same post, he wrote: "I wonder what will happen to the Georgia Straight’s political coverage if Charlie Smith gets hit by a bus and dies. I highly doubt that there will be much nostalgia. In fact, I speculate that the quality of the content will definitely improve."
He has also claimed that my political radar is "skewered by irrelevance" and ridiculed me for asking if Vision Vancouver was paying for his Web site. In other posts he has sneered at my reporting and condemned me for a Web-only article in February about the mayor's taxpayer-financed Web site.
I asked Magee if he had read any of Ross's comments about me or the Georgia Straight on the civicscene site.
"No, to be honest," Magee replied. "I mean, to be honest, you know, the blogosphere could consume a huge amount of time trying to track all this stuff, and I just don’t do it."
Magee repeated that the mayor's office has no control over what Ross writes. "Our intention and our hope is to have a respectful and open communication with the Georgia Straight," he added. "Any comments in the blogosphere that would be painting you in a derogatory light, we wouldn’t support."
Does Mike Magee read civicscene?
I followed up by asking if he reads Ross's site. Magee replied that he looks at it sometimes when Quinlan, who deals with the media, points out things that the chief of staff should be reading.
"I don't do it as a practice," Magee added.
Ross has written several laudatory posts on his site about Magee, describing him as "a uniter–someone who can bring in disparate interests to reach deals and advance projects that benefit the city as a whole".
In another post on civicscene, Ross wrote that Magee isn’t motivated by power, profile, or financial benefit, but rather by the improvement of the city.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.