Is this Vision Vancouver council compromising the democratic process at city hall? The evidence says it is. The well-being and integrity of the democratic process under today’s Vision administration is of increasing concern to Vancouver voters.
There has been a series of censorship, information control, and troubling Vision decisions, policies, and initiatives over the past two years. Their infringement on city hall democracy goes further. Examples include blocked freedom-of-information requests, FOI officer Paul Hancock quitting, a lack of budget transparency, and unaccounted for discretionary expenses limits increased from $30,000 to $300,000.
There appear to be two reasons for these:
1. A perceived need by Vision to control ideologically driven messaging; and
2. An arrogant “Vision knows what’s best for Vancouver” attitude.
The latest censorship hammer was announced on Monday (November 22). Wendy Stewart, a city communications officer, advised reporter Frances Bula that the media could no longer interview city staff by about “staff reports” being submitted to council. The media in future will be limited to speaking to councillors and the mayor.
This is yet another in a series of poorly-thought-through Vision initiatives particularly relevant to a “state of city hall democracy” discussion. This gag order is significant because it censors the essential flow of information between staff, council, the media, and thence to voters. All members of a democratic society need to be knowledgeable, and that means all need access to information to form their opinions. In this respect, the media plays a crucial role in a democratic society. They have the responsibility to inform the public.
Therefore, it is essential that this gag be removed immediately.
What’s wrong with the previous process of staff explaining complex issues and technical details to reporters in a relatively unbiased manner? Given the changing times, some fine-tuning may be necessary. For example, staff briefing councillors before reports are released and more attention paid to the sheer volume councillors are expected to absorb each week. The sometimes 12-inch-high stack of reports which landed on my desk on Fridays as a park commissioner meant I spent the weekend reading it for Monday’s meeting. It was bad enough years ago. I am sure there is even more volume today.
Why can’t a reporter, or any citizen, speak to staff on contentious projects like the casino? This barrier is another unfortunate twist in this tangled web. No wonder the public is not seeing the kinds of articles we should from the media given the nature and number of controversial initiatives on the go.
The reason that the Vision council and political staff need to instigate these draconian 1984 gag measures is precisely because of the disconnect which occurs when professional and technical staff reports are massaged by the political staff. By the time these reports are rewritten to reflect the particular Vision philosophical perspective or objective, the staff’s technical background work is sometimes disconnected with the published report. So, it’s not surprising there’s also a disconnect between what staff and councillors say to the media.
Censorship practices such as these are necessary in a totalitarian state, but they are foreign to a democracy. History teaches that those who attempt to censor the public, censor themselves in the end.
Another important concern that seriously inhibits the democratic process at city hall is the practice of having council and committee meetings during working hours and then holding “in camera” evening meetings when most citizens can participate. Why not reverse the timing?
In 1973, the TEAM council established a new policy of holding all meetings between 6:30 and 10 p.m. so that citizens could speak or listen to council debate on matters affecting them directly. Interestingly, the pre-1973 council oversaw a very centralized, top-down staff organization, similar to today’s Vision management model. The goal was to make city hall open and accessible to Vancouver citizens by encouraging them to participate in the decision-making process, as well as give ongoing input regarding city services and initiatives, including local area planning.
This Vision council is doing the opposite. They are closing down city hall. They are discouraging citizens from participating in council and committee meetings while muzzling the media.
Bill McCreery is a Non-Partisan Association candidate for Vancouver city council. He served as a TEAM park board commissioner from 1973 to 1974.