It may soon become easier to get a straight answer out of city hall. Vancouver city council voted unanimously on Tuesday to have staff investigate a contentious policy introduced by city manager Penny Ballem that permits only designated department heads to speak to media.
The motion was introduced by NPA Coun. George Affleck after hearing widespread complaints from reporters about having timely access to staff and receiving answers to basic questions about city activities, programs and spending.
“I think we need to be clear and transparent about what we do at city hall,” said Affleck, a communications company owner and one-time CBC employee, when introducing the motion.
The motion calls for staff to present a report in three months summarizing policies on media access to department heads and comparing them to “current global best practices,” as well as suggest targeted response times to media requests.
Affleck said he wants to remove the perception of secrecy or political elements from city activities.
“Maybe we should go back to empowering staff in the departments to be able to communicate quickly when questions arise,” he added. “It keeps the politics away from the issues that I think are important.”
Vision Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer successfully added several amendments to the motion, including one seeking to clarify potential libel issues if councillors publicly criticize city staff.
Vancouver's corporate communications department's budget has skyrocketed in recent years. The city spent $631,110 on communications in 2006 under former NPA mayor Sam Sullivan, while this year’s budget is $1.9 million for a department now employing 22 staff members. It saw a dramatic increase in activity due to the 2010 Olympics and has since expanded to include community outreach staff formerly affiliated with other departments.
Vision Coun. Tim Stevenson said city staff need to feel they have the trust of city councillors and can speak freely to media without fear of repercussions if they reveal anything that could be considered damaging or embarrassing. Green Party Coun. Adrienne Carr added she was dismayed to learn about the increasingly common practice of communications managers listening in on media interviews with city officials via speakerphone after first reading about it in a recent issue of the Courier.
Trish Webb, the chief communications officer for the city of Edmonton, told the Courier Vancouver’s communications department’s budget is too low for a city of its size and high cost of living. For comparison, her department employs 75 people and has an annual budget of around $9 million, although she added there are no restrictions when it comes to speaking with reporters.
“They would probably prefer you talk to one of us, but you can talk to whoever you want to,” said Webb. “We’ve got a different relation with media here. It’s very collegial. We actually have offices for reporters in city hall so they can better cover our business.”
Vancouver’s corporate communications department is currently looking for a new director after Mairi Welman recently stepped down for a new position as a communications manager with the District of North Vancouver.
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