Vancouver city hall communications budget balloons

Anton says mayor 'gagged' city staff

The city's communications budget has more than doubled in the last six years with the biggest annual budget increase by far coming in the past year.

The department's budget increased 2.45 times from $631,110 in 2006, which was midway through former NPA mayor Sam Sullivan's administration, to $1,546,425 in 2011.

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The number of staff since 2006 has increased by three, which does not include three graphic designers who were transferred to communications from another department.

The biggest leap in the department's annual budget happened between 2010 and 2011, when it increased by $412,941.

The department saw a 35 per cent increase in media calls "requiring a response" since the Olympics, according to Mairi Welman, the city's director of corporate communications.

But the city has also changed its media policy over the last two years. Reporters can no longer contact city staff directly to get answers to their questions, as was past practice for decades in Vancouver. In a move widely derided by journalists covering the city, all media enquires must go through the communications department.

"That is Gregor [Robertson] controlling the message. As you know, city hall staff have been gagged," said NPA mayoral hopeful Suzanne Anton. "Even I have a tough time getting information from them. In fact, I'm told now that they have to filter the information they give to me."

Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson told the Courier last December that city manager Penny Ballem decided to implement the new media policy. Robertson added that funnelling calls through communications was more efficient for city staff and their workload. He said staff need to get the work of the city done first to benefit taxpayers.

"It's important to create an efficient system for the communication side but not at risk of undermining all the work that taxpayers are expecting to be done," said Robertson.

Anton wouldn't say at the Courier's recent mayoral debate whether she would replace Ballem, who was hired by Vision Vancouver in 2008, if Anton was elected mayor. But she said she would lift the "gag order" on staff.

"Openness, transparency are fundamental to my new administration," Anton said at the Oct. 21 debate.

Vision Vancouver campaigned on a more open, transparent government in 2008.

Anton said she would reduce the communications budget if elected.

Welman said the communications department is responding to an average of 260 media calls a month in 2011. It responded to an average of 190 media calls per month in 2010. She said 90 per cent of media enquiries are resolved on the same business day they are received.

Welman reported the city added a position of public engagement manager to the communications department midway through this year to respond to council's direction to expand consultation on major initiatives that include the city's housing strategy, transportation plan, greenest city, capital planning and the future of the viaducts.

She said requests for communications assistance from other city departments have increased by 25 per cent from 2009 to 2011.

She noted the annual budgets reflect compensation increases since 2006. Welman added that the communications department ran with extra temporary staff in 2010, which was funded through the budget of the Olympic Secretariat and not included in the figures she provided.

crossi@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi

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