24 Hours: City Hall or Sealed Fortress at 12th & Cambie?

Vancouver City staff put the final touches on the new door to the FOI Manager’s office

This is my Thursday column from 24 Hours, which was titled "City's Chokehold Tightens on Info" …

Is Vancouver City Hall becoming a “sealed fortress”? That’s how NPA Councillor Suzanne Anton has referred to the landmark building at 12th & Cambie as top brass insist upon choking off access to information.

The barrier around City Hall just grew taller on Tuesday as City Manager Penny Ballem decreed that news from certain blogs would no longer be circulated internally as part of a daily media brief.

Cutting off blogs like CityCaucus.com from Vancouver’s newswire is just another attempt at controlling the information entering and leaving City Hall. After presenting a devastating staff survey that showed only one-quarter of workers gave the City’s leadership passing grades, it’s possible Ballem thinks that limiting access to blogs will cheer everyone up.

For the blog I write, it virtually guarantees that our traffic is going to go up. After two years in business, web traffic from City Hall to CityCaucus.com has increased steadily. Of course, Ballem could neutralize the site for her workers in the same way some companies block your Facebook access.

Can you imagine us having to set up mirror sites just so City staff can get a glimpse of what some people are saying outside the Hall? Can you say “Wikileaks”?

Vision Vancouver campaigned to increase openness and transparency at City Hall. That is not only a failed promise by Vision, everyone sees that Gregor Robertson and Penny Ballem have done their level best to limit scrutiny.

Hence Vancouver City Hall becoming a “sealed fortress.”

Just a few weeks ago the City’s respected Freedom of Information manager quit, then stated to a reporter he could no longer do his job under this administration. After that word got out that the typical practice of media to call City staff for background on policy reports was no longer permitted. All media access would be directed through the City’s PR flacks.

When taking junkets to China and New York, Gregor Robertson has picked up the tab for costly dinners, but his chief of staff refuses to say who dined with the Mayor. Knowing who has access to our politicians, especially when you and I are paying the bill, is a citizen’s right.

Maybe someone should remind Mayor Gregor about this.

Last spring we requested a list of partygoers who were invited to the lacklustre Vancouver House venue that ran during the 2010 Games. A tipster told us that it was regularly closed to the public because of the “invitation only” requirement. We wanted the taxpaying public to know who was on the guest list, and got pages of blanked out names in return.

Other information requests, such as the names of special contractors hired by the City Manager, have been held in limbo for months while B.C.’s privacy commissioner resolves the dispute.

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? Information that should be at our fingertips is being kept from view.

Vision Vancouver has created the City’s most secretive government. Shouldn’t we begin to ask why?

- post by Mike

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