Is Vancouver city manager’s desire to hire social media guru an overblown controversy?

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung challenges Sadhu Johnston over proposal to hire new staff worth $329,000

12th and Cambie

You may have heard the news this week that Vancouver city manager Sadhu Johnston wants to hire a $95,000-a-year “senior social digital communications strategist” for his office.

The delivery of the news, which came via radio and television, focused on how sanitation services were being cut so Johnston could hire the social media guru.

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The predictable reaction was outrage, which came largely and ironically via social media giant, Twitter, my favourite go-to source for facts, context and gauging how people really feel.

I’m kidding.

What happened at city council Tuesday – I’m sorry to report – was more complicated than pitting sanitation services against a well-paid social media employee.

Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung was responsible for making it less complicated by zeroing in on line items in a city staff report that showed $329,000 in spending allotted for the city manager’s office.

Of that $329,000, a total of $95,000 was to hire the social media person, $105,000 for “ongoing funding” for a social planner and $129,000 for another planner.

Another set of line items in the report was related to equipment and staffing for litter pickup, street sweeping, staff operations and safety training programs, all of it to be delayed – not cancelled – until next year.

The net cut in the delay would amount to $130,000.

So there was the matchup for Kirby-Yung, who went on to pepper Johnston with questions, some of it transcribed below for context.

Kirby-Yung: “We have 1,800 staff laid off right now and we still have – without a reduction – three new positions in the city manager’s office, including a social media person and planning related roles?”

Johnston: “We are doing a lot more online right now. There’s a lot more happening social media wise. As an example of that, we’re broadcasting this meeting live on Facebook because of the technology challenges. So we’re seeing a huge demand at this point for that service across the organization.”

Kirby-Yung: “So we’re keeping $329,000 for three new positions, but we still have 1,800 people laid off and we’re cutting $130,000 in sanitation. Is that a correct summary?”

Johnston: “We’re not currently hiring those positions because we do have a hiring freeze. So at this point, those positions are not being pursued, but we haven’t removed the funding for them, though.”

Kirby-Yung: “But that is an option, is that right?”

Johnston: “Yes.”

With that, Kirby-Yung tried twice to reduce Johnston’s office budget but was voted down by Green Party councillors Michael Wiebe, Adriane Carr and Pete Fry, along with Mayor Kennedy Stewart and councillors Jean Swanson and Christine Boyle.

Boyle: “I don’t think it would be good practice to start cherry picking some dollar amounts specifically when we’re not identifying exactly what we’re giving up. I don’t support the process, otherwise we’ll be here all night with each of us saying, ‘Well here’s $300,000 that I would like to see go towards something that has been delayed or cut back.’”

Wiebe: “There’s a lot of work being done by staff, and I think there’s a lot of opportunities in this budget to see movement and I don’t want to see us go through each operational item. I think we should be at a policy level.”

Wiebe made those comments after hearing from Johnston that the city’s aim to balance its $1.6 billion operating budget is a fluid exercise, with more changes expected the rest of the year.

“Each department will make adjustments in their own budgets to prioritize and to address the changing conditions and the circumstances,” Johnston said.

“We may need to produce further savings later in the year, or we may be doing better than we thought because revenue comes back sooner and we could do more.”

All this debate and discussion occurred Tuesday because the city has lost millions in revenues since the pandemic was declared in March, and is facing a $111 million deficit.

Sanitation and the city manager’s office budget, you may have assumed by this point in the story, were not the only items in staff’s lengthy report that outlined cuts, delays and cancellations.

Have a look for yourself here.

A story that didn’t receive near or any of the attention that ‘Socialmediagate’ attracted was Swanson’s successful motion to save the city’s women’s equity, anti-racism and reconciliation initiatives that were on the chopping block.

For media this week, it was all about the social media position, with reporters hounding the mayor the day after the council meeting at an unrelated news conference at city hall.

This morphed into the wider question as to why the city has 40-plus communications staffers – a perpetual issue for media that has been fuelled by Non-Partisan Association councillors past and present, who have yet to land on the best number of media reps, graphic designers, multimedia people and others to be promoting one of the country’s biggest cities.

“This city has a budget of $1.6 billion, we have 10,000 employees and you’re talking about one position – somebody that hasn’t been hired,” a clearly peeved Stewart told reporters.

“So what you’re setting up is a false narrative. I am very concerned about social disorder in this city, I’m very concerned about sanitation, I’m very concerned about rising crime levels.”

Added Stewart: “The focus in targeting one position – and the person hasn’t been hired yet – is kind of a weird story to follow.”

Another weird story is that Stewart’s office used Elettra Communications, which was involved in his election campaign, to manage his communications this week because his media guy was taking a week off.

Weird or not, my work of providing some context mixed with political rhetoric is done. You can tweet about it, if you like. Be outraged, if you must.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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