Much ado about Twitter at city hall meeting

Tweet from mayor’s office on short-term rentals faces scrutiny

12th and Cambie

Big scandal at city hall Tuesday.

Let me be the first to give the scandal a click-baity, tabloid style name: Twittergate!

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Yep, that social media tool I have a love/hate relationship with reared its 280-character head in city council’s debate Tuesday. It occurred precisely at 11:09 a.m. as your favourite elected officials debated whether they should implement new rules for operators of short-term rentals who post their properties on home-sharing sites such as Airbnb and VRBO.

What happened at 11:09?

This tweet from Mayor Gregor Robertson’s office: “New short-term rental regulations balance need for long-term rentals for those who live + work in YVR with some homeowners who rely on extra income for STR to make ends meet #vanpoli #housing.”

Big deal, you say, the mayor is on side with the new rules. 

So what?

Well, the “so what” is that Robertson’s office typed up that tweet and sent it out roughly 59 minutes before council decided whether to implement the new rules. NPA Coun. George Affleck noticed this tweet and rose in the chambers to request an immediate recess to speak to the city’s legal department.

“I’m a bit concerned,” Affleck said. “There’s some tweets coming out of the mayor’s office about 10 minutes ago that seem to pre-suppose the decision we have not made yet. I wonder if the mayor can provide clarity on what his office is doing, tweeting things that are supporting the decision that hasn’t been made yet. Could you perhaps provide clarity on that?”

Robertson: “I’m not aware of any tweets at this point in time. Sorry, we’re part of the council meeting here…”

Affleck: “Well, it’s your office Mr. Mayor…”

Robertson declined Affleck’s request for a recess, saying city manager Sadhu Johnston and city clerk Janice MacKenzie would investigate the tweet. Roughly 10 minutes later, Johnston returned to the council chambers, stood on his feet and like a referee on a sports field making a ruling on a controversial play said this:

“We reviewed the play and the passer was over the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball…”

Actually, he said this:

“We did confer. We reviewed the tweets, we engaged briefly with our city solicitor. The suggestion has been made to clarify through Twitter that the regulations haven’t been approved yet, but there’s nothing untoward that has occurred. At this point, I’m presuming you still have an open mind on the matter, Mr. Mayor. There’s nothing wrong with the tweets, although they could be clearer in the fact that it might create confusion the way that they’re written. So I think we’ve communicated to your office that they send out a clarifying tweet that the regulations haven’t been approved yet. They are proposed.”

Robertson: “Thank you very much. I absolutely have an open mind to this.”

That clarifying tweet from the mayor’s office?

“Council debating proposed regulations on short-term rentals now. See what staff have recommended here: (link to city staff report). #vanpoli.”

Not exactly click bait.

Some takeaways from this…

Twitter can get people in trouble.

Twitter is a time suck.

Twitter can sometimes simultaneously provide ammunition for politicians and story fodder for a reporter on deadline.

Note: There was some actual news to come out of the meeting. City council voted 7-4 in favour of a series of recommendations in an attempt to reduce the estimated 6,000 homes listed on home-sharing services. Operators must pay a $49 annual licence fee and a one-time application fee of $54. Short-term rentals are banned from secondary homes, secondary suites and laneway homes for periods of less than 30 days. Those who rent short term without a licence will be subject to a fine of up to $1,000 per infraction. The new regulations come in to effect April 1, 2018.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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