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VIEW: Five points on Vancouver's transparency issue

Are you concerned about transparency in city hall? Reporter Bob Mackin is. Here, Mackin looks at the record and promises of Vancouver's 2014 election candidates.

LaPointe the reformer

A strong plank on the Non-Partisan Association platform under mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe are his transparency and accountability reforms. If he becomes mayor, he pledges to hire an ombudsperson, open a lobbyist registry and enact a law requiring the routine release of municipal information, except that which is clearly covered by privacy provisions.

This would include information about contracts for goods and services and how they're awarded. As it stands, city bureaucrats award contracts worth millions of dollars behind closed doors and do not release the names of the unsuccessful bidders or their bid prices.

LaPointe already has had an impact. Even though the NPA was last of the majors to disclose its donations list on Nov. 7, it was LaPointe's Oct. 30 announcement that prompted the others to show who donated what to their campaigns.

Green and COPE share some of the same ideas with the NPA and members of Cedar Party and Vancouver 1st claim they were talking about a lobbyist registry and anti-corruption office before LaPointe joined the race in mid-July.

Freelance journalist Stanley Tromp, in the Province, surveyed the four main parties about their platforms. LaPointe and Green Party leader Counc. Adriane Carr responded. COPE city council candidate Keith Higgins batted for his team. But none of Vision's candidates, not even the mayor, responded to Tromp. Instead, he received boilerplate answers from party communications manager Marcella Munro.

Robertson's broken promise

The fall of 2008 was a time of change. In the United States, Barack Obama was capturing hearts and minds. In Vancouver, juice entrepreneur and almost-one term NDP MLA Gregor Robertson took power from the NPA at 12th and Cambie.

Robertson's swearing-in speech emphasized the promise to end street homelessness by 2015 and a non-specific promise to make city hall more open and accountable.

"When the city uses your money, you have a right to know where it's being spent, and what it's being used for. When leaders fall short of that standard, public confidence is shaken," Robertson said.

"I will not let you down on making City Hall more open and accountable."

Politicians have different visions for transparency, depending on whether they're in opposition or in government. But they rarely punctuate their post-election promise by saying the words: "I will not let you down."

Vision Vancouver has received plaudits for the city's open data website, but open information is its weak point. It need not be. Just look over the Rockies at Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who proactively publishes a list of gifts received, a monthly list of meetings, office budget and expenses.

Communication clampdown

In 2011, the city instituted a ban on bureaucrats communicating with reporters. Even the city clerk's office shunts reporters seeking facts to corporate communications. More often than not, reporters will receive a paragraph statement rather than the interview they originally sought.

It is part of city manager Penny Ballem's influence. The former deputy health minister under premier Gordon Campbell created a $2 million-a-year department for 30 people, full-time and part-time.

By comparison, Surrey, B.C.'s second biggest city, has a two-person communications department.

Vancouver city hall has also become more technologically adept. In 2013, it contracted without tender Vision Critical on a two-year, $152,000 citizen polling software contract. It also forged an alliance with Hootsuite, whose tenancy in a city-owned building was agreed in 2012, seven months after the social media advertising company successfully assisted Vision Vancouver's re-election campaign.

Hootsuite is also valuable politically. It is a growing local tech company that the mayor can wrap himself whenever opponents question his economic development policies.

C-grades in audits

Newspapers Canada, the trade group for newspaper publishers, singled out the City of Vancouver with a C-grade on its 2014 survey of Freedom of Information offices in cities and provinces. The grade is the same as when VIsion Vancouver took power. This time around, however, Newspapers Canada awarded Vancouver an F for slow responses. The FOI office is where journalists are increasingly pointed to for answers to routine questions about facts and statistics.

Why it matters

Without transparency, citizens feel divorced from the government decision-making process and corruption flourishes. One need only look at the saga that is the Charbonneau Inquiry in Montreal.

According to Glenn T. Ware et al. in Corruption in Public Procurement: A Perennial Challenge, governments must show how they're spending money in order to keep the public trust.

"A sound public procurement system promotes transparency, not only to generate competition which in turn leads to savings and lower prices, but also to increase the public confidence that government is providing legitimate services for their citizens. rather than increasing their private wealth or that of their relatives, friends or interests," Ware wrote.

"This objective is best achieved by enforcing transparency in decision making throughout the entire procurement process. Transparency in public procurement requires the timely release of data and information that is sufficient to allow understanding of the way the procurement (system) is intended to work, as well as how it is functioning in practice."

North Vancouver based Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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