Olympic secrecy sowing a bitter harvest

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      You can imagine the panic taking place behind the secretive walls of Vancouver's Olympic organizing committee, otherwise known as VANOC. Its beloved Olympic flag was stolen. Hordes of protesters have begun crashing Olympic events because of broken promises over evictions on the Downtown Eastside.

      The 2010 Winter Games Inner-City Inclusive Commitment Statement, which is posted on the City of Vancouver Web site, states that the Olympic-bid corporation and its member partners had adopted several goals to protect the interests of inner-city neighbourhoods. The document highlights the protection of rental stock. It also pledges to ensure that people will not be made homeless as a result of the Games. Since then, the Pivot Legal Society has documented the loss of 350 single-occupancy rooms on the Downtown Eastside.

      Meanwhile, middle-class taxpayers are recognizing that they were conned by low-ball promises over construction costs of Olympic facilities, the expansion of the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre, and the Canada Line.

      VANOC's response? The board has asked management to improve "transparency".

      It's a nice spin. The truth, however, is that VANOC and its masters—municipal, provincial, and federal governments and the Canadian Olympic Committee—could have provided transparency a long time ago. In 2003, the Georgia Straight suggested four simple measures even before VANOC was created:

      > Place VANOC under the province's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, so it would be obliged to respond to public requests for information.

      > Ensure that VANOC adheres to the Financial Information Act, which would require the organization to publish annual lists of payments to suppliers.

      > Force VANOC to follow the provisions of the Document Disposal Act so that management would be penalized for shredding records.

      > Put VANOC under the Financial Disclosure Act, which would reduce the likelihood of management conflicts of interest.

      In their hubris, Premier Gordon Campbell and VANOC ignored these suggestions.

      So it's time for a different set of proposals to enhance VANOC's transparency. Firstly, VANOC directors could publish the contracts and the benefits plans of executives such as CEO John Furlong on its Web site. It's not unprecedented, and it would reassure provincial taxpayers who are responsible for any VANOC operating shortfalls. BC Hydro has been doing this for years.

      VANOC could also post an annual list of its five highest-paid executives, which would put it on par with Canada's publicly traded companies. While they're at it, VANOC directors could also publish an annual list of payments to suppliers of goods and services. That way, taxpayers could see which consultants, law firms, construction companies, entertainers, and former athletes are generating income from the Olympics.

      The provincial government, BC Hydro, TransLink, the Greater Vancouver Regional District, and the City of Vancouver already publish these lists. Meanwhile, the federal government mentions all contracts and grants over $25,000 on the Web. To date, VANOC hasn't done this.

      If VANOC were really interested in spreading sunshine, it would add a lobbyists' registry to its site, so the public could know who is seeking contracts from the organization. The feds and the province already do this.

      VANOC could also copy the federal government and post travel and hospitality expenses on its Web site on a quarterly basis. Anyone can go to the Web page of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada and see how much David Emerson, the federal minister overseeing the Olympics, has spent on his overseas and domestic jaunts. You can also look up the travel and hospitality expenses of top bureaucrats. But you can't find out how much Furlong and friends are coughing up on hotels, air fare, and meals.

      VANOC directors also don't post the minutes of their meetings on the Web site, nor do they provide transcripts or videotapes. Forget about the directors listing their personal investments and debts in a general way, which would reveal if they're approving contracts to companies in which they have a financial stake.

      The board has retained former judges Allan McEachern and Martin Taylor as "ethics commissioners", which provides a veneer of accountability. The ethics commissioners' report for the period from June 2004 to August 2006 mentioned that an unnamed director was in a position to be "compensated for delivery of communication and public speaking services" for the 2010 Legacies Now Society.

      "Based on the recommendation of the Commissioner, neither VANOC nor the Director proceeded with a contract with the Society," the report stated.

      The commissioner didn't identify the director by name. The report provided no details about how the public might levy ethical complaints against any director's conduct in the future. The Web site doesn't feature any guide to the conduct of employees and directors. And the ethics commissioners' statement itself, according to the document, was prepared by VANOC management. That's like having MLAs write the reports of the conflict-of-interest commissioner who is evaluating their behaviour.

      VANOC chairman Jack Poole told the Vancouver Sun earlier this month that the budget for the Games is now "north of $2 billion". That's 50 percent above the original estimate. The convention-centre expansion, which will house international media for the Games, is now heading toward $800 million, up from the province's original claim of $495 million. The Canada Line has likely passed $2 billion by now and could reach critics' original estimate of $2.5 billion.

      TransLink officials have frequently claimed that the Canada Line was "never part of our Olympic bid". But in April 2003, Poole himself wrote a letter to Premier Campbell, then–prime minister Jean Chrétien, and then-mayor Larry Campbell describing the transit project as "a valuable tool in the campaign to win the right to host the 2010 Winter Games".

      All of this has contributed to a growing credibility gap. Compounding the problem has been a compliant B.C. media, which has bred a sense of complacency among VANOC officials.

      Now, angry mobs are in the streets and taxpayers are increasingly suspicious. And VANOC is finally talking about transparency almost four years after Vancouver won the Olympic bid. You reap what you sow. If this city suffers a whirlwind of international embarrassment as a result of all of this, Premier Campbell and his friends at VANOC will have only themselves to blame.