Friday, February 15, 2013

PavCo tries to blacklist inconvenient sleuth

Remember the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre, the private-public partnership seaplane dock built at the $883 million Vancouver Convention Centre (which was supposed to be built for $495 million)?

Holdout Harbour Air agreed to move from a temporary marina into the new $22 million VHFC, but pay $2 million for its own dock. Harbour Air was balking at the excessive $12 per-passenger tax. VHFC was built by Ledcor and Graham Clark, who was part of the board that privatized Vancouver International Airport and imposed the unpopular passenger tax called the Airport Improvement Fee

In September 2012, the lawsuits were dropped and VHFC and PavCo settled. According to the below settlement agreement, obtained under Freedom of Information, PavCo agreed to pay VHFC a secret sum and amend the lease agreement. The parties agreed to bear their own legal costs.

These documents should have arrived long before now. I made the request Sept. 13, 2012. It took just over five calendar months for PavCo to make the disclosure. And, as you can see, it is not even a full disclosure. 

This may be one of the last Freedom of Information disclosures I get, if PavCo has its way. 

PavCo Assistant Corporate Secretary and Freedom of Information Manager Alexandra Wagner notified me on Feb. 15, 2013 that PavCo filed an application on Feb. 13, 2013 under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner

Section 43, headlined “Power to authorize a public body to disregard requests,” allows a public body to ask the Information and Privacy Commissioner to authorize the disregarding of requests that “would unreasonably interfere with the operations of the public body because of the repetitious or systematic nature of the requests, or are frivolous or vexatious.”

It seems I am too curious about about PavCo, the companies it hires, the money it spends, the Vancouver Whitecaps and B.C. Lions rental payments (or lack thereof), and the half-billion-dollars of taxpayers' money spent on the stadium renovation, which is now being examined by the Office of the Auditor General. (At least four of John Doyle's staffers, I am told, were seen touring the stadium on Feb. 8.).

Through FOI, I have received documents that helped me expose uncomfortable facts and inconvenient truths about B.C. Place Stadium, such as the janitorial worker whose death after collapsing on the job was covered-up for two years, the grease leaks from roof support cables that have caused millions of dollars in roof fabric stains and the high-level meetings held to resurrect a controversial casino proposal. Those are just three examples of many stories you would never know about if I only relied on PavCo news releases and news conferences. 

Now, PavCo's goal is to refuse to disclose any of my requests from Feb. 13, 2013 onward. 

PavCo wants to shut me down. 

I say, PavCo must not succeed. 

I am a frequent requester, but what I do is not frivolous or vexatious. Nor is it repetitive or wasteful. In fact, it is necessary and it is in the public interest. I ask tough questions of a Crown corporation that is ultimately owned by you, the public. A Crown corporation that runs downtown Vancouver's two biggest buildings and relies on scarce and hard-earned taxpayer dollars. A Crown corporation that has a tendency toward secrecy because it simply doesn't enjoy questions from the public, whether it's about a casino not wanted by neighbours or advertising signs not wanted by neighbours.

PavCo has consistently turned down my interview requests and not provided basic information in a timely manner. FOI has become the best and only tool for gaining knowledge of what goes on behind closed-doors. 

I would prefer I didn't have to ask PavCo to release records. I would prefer PavCo  would see fit to do its business in the open and in a proactive manner. How about public meetings of the board of directors? How about publishing the agenda before the meeting and the minutes afterward? How about disclosing all contracts worth $10,000-and-up on a quarterly basis? How about explaining why some of the contracts were awarded without a competitive bidding process? How about publishing the Joint Occupational Health and Safety Committee minutes every month? 

Alas, PavCo isn't transparent and I have to ask for these things on the public’s behalf. What makes it even more troubling is that PavCo seems to be contravening Premier Christy Clark’s own government-wide openness directive

The 2011 throne speech said: "Our government is committed to openness, transparency and engaging with British Columbians. Simply put: we need to be open with the information people have a right to see and open to ideas they have a right to voice."
In July 2011, at the 2:49 mark of this video, Clark said: "After all, it's taxpayers' money and it's taxpayers' information."
PavCo's board includes chairman Peter Fassbender (the Mayor of Langley) and Suzanne Anton (who wanted to be Mayor of Vancouver). Both of them are seeking Liberal nominations. I have asked for their assistance in overturning this ill-thought strategy. Ex-NPA Vancouver Coun. Anton, in particular, rallied against Vision Vancouver's creeping secrecy at Vancouver city hall. Now she is part of an entity that prefers to do its business away from the public eye. An entity that reports to Deputy Premier Rich Coleman, who is the minister responsible for PavCo. That's the same Coleman who is oddly never available when I want to interview him on PavCo, gambling and liquor issues.

I have appealed to PavCo to rescind the section 43 application. I hope reason and transparency will prevail at PavCo. I have also complained to Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, asking her to deny the PavCo application. It would be a very sad day for both citizens and the media in B.C. if PavCo were to succeed -- especially when an election is rapidly approaching and citizens need to be informed before they go to the ballot box. 

In the meantime, I have plenty of previously received PavCo information that I will eagerly share with you in the weeks to come, because you have the right to know.

Getcha popcorn ready!

(Pssst... if you have credible information that is in the public interest and you think I should receive it, I gladly accept brown envelopes c/o Business in VancouverThe Tyee or CKNW AM 980. And, you must know that any citizen can make a Freedom of Information request. It is not the sole domain of nosy journalists like me. For instance, you can file an FOI request to PavCo, c/o Alexandra Wagner, by mail: #200-999 Canada Place, Vancouver, B.C. V6C 3C1; fax: 604-484-5154; or email: Never made an FOI request? The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has user-friendly FOI request directions here. Happy requesting!)

UPDATE (7:53 p.m. Feb. 15): Fassbender responded with this message below: 
Thank you for both your phone messages and copying me on this correspondence.  I am going over the circumstances with the staff and am not prepared to comment without having the history from them. I want you to know that my first default is to leave matters like this to staff and do not get involved as I do not think it is appropriate in my role as Chair of the Board. I am sure you would like me to provide more comment but I am not prepared to do so.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Should you trust the Pacific Carbon Trust?

Get ready for Premier Christy Clark to tell you sometime before the May 14 election day about how her BC Liberal Party is committed to openness. She might even say it's the most open in British Columbia history.

Don't believe her. It's just not true. 

Here is evidence of yet another public body in B.C. that just refuses to respect that government information belongs to the people who pay for government. Public bodies, like Pacific Carbon Trust, prefer to be inefficient and resist the simplicity of transparency, for fear of uncomfortable questions that might (gasp!) embarrass the ruling Liberal politicians.

I made a Freedom of Information request on Oct. 19, 2012 to PCT for a list of its suppliers and contractors, $25,000 or more. I wanted to find out how much it was paying for carbon offsets, the modern version of the 16th century sin-absolving scam dreamed up by the Catholic Church. Today's indulgences allow polluters to voluntarily pay for their planet-staining sins. 

PCT is a B.C. Crown corporation dreamed-up by Gordon Campbell when he was premier, to force government to go "carbon neutral." Whether it's school boards or hospital authorities, if they don't meet targets for reducing carbon emissions, they pay a $25 per tonne penalty to PCT. PCT then funds private sector projects. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives did a good job of deconstructing this government scheme.

PCT responded on Nov. 28, 2012 with a list of contractors and suppliers. But many names and dollar values were missing. The 16 amounts paid in 2011 and 2012 for carbon offsets were censored. PCT tried claiming it could withhold names and dollar amounts under section 3 (outside the scope), 14 (solicitor-client privilege) or 17 (risk of harm to financial interests) of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. 

I complained to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. On Feb. 13, 2013, I received all the information that had been withheld from me.PCT's original use of sec. 3, 14 and 17 was, for lack of a better word, bogus. 

My colleague from Business in Vancouver, Nelson Bennett, also received his information from PCT. His quest was a year-long and he wrote about it in this story on

What do we know now? 

Over the last two years, a whopping $17,497,877 was spent by PCT under the guise of offsets.

Encana $1,617,716
Blue Source $1,228,173
Canfor Pulp Ltd. $329,910
South Coast B.C. Transportation (TransLink) $213,564
B.C. Transit $29,289

PCT also spent money on lawyers and accountants.

Lawyer Kai Alderson $27,019

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Three years ago...

Yes, it has been three years.

Three years since the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics began on Feb. 12, 2010.

The Games of the Great Recession. The Bailout Games. The El Nino Games. The Summer Games in Wintertime.

Hands up if you remember the heatwave or got sunburn; the sunsets were fabulous from my perch in the press tribune at Cypress Mountain.

Since then, the London 2012 Olympics came and went. We're now less than a year until the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

Coming later this month is the 10th anniversary of the City of Vancouver plebiscite on the Olympic bid, which was passed by 64% of the 46% of voters who went to the polls on Feb. 22.

Relive all the memories and learn shocking, never-before told stories. Read Red Mittens & Red Ink: The Vancouver Olympics e-book by Bob Mackin. The only book of its kind on the biggest, most-controversial sport and security spectacle in Canadian history.

Special $3 off discount -- only available on Feb. 12, 2013 -- to celebrate the third anniversary of opening day.

Click here to go to Smashwords and enter coupon code UV67Y to get your copy for just $5.99.

As a special bonus, click here to enjoy the Feb. 12, 2010 opening ceremony, in full.

Monday, February 11, 2013

B.C. Family Day: a new holiday, but it'll cost you

Today is British Columbia's first Family Day and the government is spending $1.5 million on events in Vancouver, Victoria, Cranbrook, Kamloops, Kelowna, Nanaimo and Prince George. It hired "experiential marketing agency" Inventa, which, in turn, hired "brand ambassadors" to promote the holiday -- a creation of Premier Christy Clark. Read my story here. 

Shouldn't a good idea just sell itself? Or is it a good idea?

Family Day will be a photo opportunity for Premier Photo Op, who is fighting an uphill battle to be re-elected on May 14. Since taking office on March 14, 2011, she has tried to be seen as a champion for jobs and families. But is she really helping increase jobs and help families?
B.C. Family Day: is that mama bear or papa bear?

As much as a day-off during the winter doldrums is welcome in this hectic world of ours (even the Work Less Party would agree), is it really the best strategy for a Premier who has staked her future on the message of jobs for families? The facts indicate another holiday will harm the economy. Simply put, if economic activity falls -- even by a fraction -- then it will be more difficult for the struggling B.C. Liberal government to balance the budget and harder for families to make ends meet. 

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, whose members were already hobbled by the Harmonized Sales Tax and increased minimum wage, fears it will hurt businesses in lost sales, decreased productivity and increased costs. CFIB recently hired Mike Klassen (who is certainly no enemy of the ruling Liberals), who proclaimed "government gets the glory, but small business pays the bill."

When offices, warehouses, factories, mills, mines and construction sites are closed for a day, then economic activity decreases. Yes, there will be an uptick in tourism and hospitality spending, but it won't be enough to fill the gap. A study in the United Kingdom showed each bank holiday costs the economy an estimated £2.3 billion (about $3.6 billion).

(Don't waste your time with any comments calling me a party-pooper. I wish weekends were five days long and we only had a two-day work week, but we live in a capitalist-dominated world under a pro-business provincial government that claims to be the ultimate champion of free enterprise.)

Still don't believe me about the economic harm of a new holiday? Then read the Ministry of Labour's communications plan at bottom. Here is the relevant section that predicts less economic activity and higher labour costs for public sector workers. 

Estimate of the Economic Impact:
Applying a formula developed by BMO Capital Markets and that was first used in Ontario when it introduced a Family Day in 2007; the Ministry’s rough estimate is that a new statutory holiday could result in reduced economic activity in the range of about $198 million (i.e., the equivalent of approximately 0.1 per cent of provincial Gross Domestic Product).
In addition, a February holiday would have a direct fiscal impact on government. The Public Sector Employers’ Council Secretariat has estimated this to be approximately $28 million in additional wage/salary and benefit costs for employers in the broad public sector (0.12% of the public sector compensation base of $22.9 billion). 
Current Economy:
The Ministry of Finance has advised that Government is monitoring the current situation in the United States and Europe very carefully, as recent economic events in those regions are of concern. While British Columbia is not immune to economic events abroad, it has weathered the recession of 2008/009 better than most other provinces. Government expects that B.C.’s competitiveness will keep it in good stead going forward and is committed to the objective of a balanced budget in 2013/2014.
On September 8th, the Ministry of Finance released the first quarterly report, which indicated that the return to the two-tax PST/GST system will result in bigger deficits than forecast in Budget 2011:
o deficits of $2,778 million in 2011/12, and;
o $805 million in 2012/13.
The first quarterly update also projects a deficit of $458 million.

And, since that was written, the economic news has not improved. In November 2012, Finance Minister Mike de Jong projected a $1.47 billion deficit for 2012-13. B.C.'s debt was forecast to hit $55.9 billion in 2013 -- a massive burden for families today and families of the future. One need only look at the woes of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain to understand the toll that debt causes on families.

The B.C. government is spending $15 million on the B.C. Jobs Plan advertising campaign, despite little evidence that Clark's policies have resulted in any private sector job creation. Sun Media's David Akin deconstructed the government's spin. B.C. is fourth worst in Canada in job creation. Statistics Canada said it lost 16,000 jobs in January and little has changed over the last year. 

If the NDP wins the election, don't expect Family Day to be cancelled. Why would the party of Big Labour take away a statutory holiday on which workers get time-and-a-half or better? 

Why was Feb. 11 chosen as the first Family Day, instead of synching with Feb. 18 -- when five other provinces and the United States have their annual third Monday of February statutory holiday?

Bill Tieleman, who is no friend of the BC Liberals, celebrates his birthday on Feb. 18. Sarah Palin, an obvious inspiration to Clark, has her 49th birthday on Feb. 11. But the real reason may be the Chinese lunar new year, which fell on Feb. 10. Clark was born in 1965, which was also a Year of the Snake. While the role of families has eroded in North American culture, the family unit remains the bedrock of Chinese culture, where family names come before individual names. Clark held a Feb. 7 event at the Floata restaurant in Chinatown to kick off the Year of the Snake/Family Day weekend.

If the NDP comes to power, they can move Family Day to the third Monday of February without fear of offending the Chinese community. The Year of the Horse starts Jan. 31, 2014.  

Anyway, Family Day is here to stay. Relax, have fun, stay safe and enjoy it. Just remember that there are costs attached. 

Thoughts on Penny

Who really is running Vancouver city hall?

The twice-elected Mayor is Gregor Robertson, the tuba-playing, bike-riding, organic-farming former NDP MLA who finally sold his holdings in Happy Planet Juice Co. in late 2012. Skeptics wonder if one of his lieutenants, Coun. Geoff Meggs, is really shifting the gears on the 10-speed behind the scenes. 

Penny Ballem: unelected and uncompromising?
City manager Penny Ballem is the top-paid civic employee, at $334,002 for 2011. She was hired, without competition, to replace the fired Judy Rogers in December 2008. Rogers got a $572,000 golden parachute, because the Vision Vancouver administration felt she was an NPA-loyalist. 

It wasn’t the first time Ballem got a no-bid gig. She did 78 hours work for $30,000 from eHealth Ontario

Ballem’s claim to fame was as deputy minister of health for five years under then-Premier Gordon Campbell. Health is the biggest and most complex ministry in government. She quit in 2006, calling Campbell’s plans for the ministry “unsound.”

Not only did Ballem replace Rogers in the city manager’s office, but she also took her seat on the  board of directors for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics organizing committee, better known as VANOC.

Ballem was involved in city hall's $2.3 million purchase of used furniture and computers from VANOC. VANOC also got free rent in the city-owned 3585 Graveley Street “Campus 2010” after the Games. Ballem also signed-off on the transfer of VANOC files to the City Archives, mandating they be kept secret from the public until 15 years after the Games! The International Olympic Committee required the City Archives take it over, as per the host city agreement. But I couldn’t find anything from the IOC requiring the documents be kept secret until 2025. But that’s what Ballem agreed to do. So none of us who paid for the Olympics can see the financial and legal records or board correspondence, reports, agendas and minutes until after the Sochi 2014, PyeongChang 2018 and 2022 Winter Games have come and gone. 

In February 2011, Ballem excused Olympic Village developer Millennium from its mortgage, which once was worth $1 billion. She later admitted city taxpayers would lose $48 million on the Village, but downplayed the claims of those who said the loss was in the range of $200 million. 

Ballem has a reputation as an uncompromising micromanager and her influence has reached into every department at city hall. Those who have disagreed with her have retired, resigned or been fired. Ballem gagged city hall bureaucrats from talking to the media; they once were accessible and pleased to talk to reporters about the important work they do for citizens. Under her watch, it has become harder to receive records under Freedom of Information. 

Now comes the struggle over control of the city's community centres. Ballem is leading the charge to centralize control with the Park Board. The volunteer Vancouver Community Centre Associations are fighting back. Non-Partisan Association and Green Party politicians are opposed to the plan by the majority Vision Vancouver. 

Green Coun. Adriane Carr wanted to ask fellow councillors at the Feb. 12 city council meeting to order a staff report on the costs of centralizing the 23 community centres. As the Vancouver Courier’s Sandra Thomas reported, Ballem thwarted Carr’s motion. Now Carr has hired a lawyer.  

How can a public employee, no matter how senior, tell an elected official what can and cannot be debated in a democratic setting?

A source provided me a copy of the Feb. 5, 2013, 7:14 p.m. email by Ballem to Carr (copied to city clerk Janice MacKenzie and city lawyer Francie Connell), which said: 
"I apologize that I haven't had a chance to talk to you today about your motion - I just signed off the Council Agenda at about 6pm. Your motion presents a significant issue and given our last conversation about a motion which was a problem I thought I would send you a note. First, the GM of Park Board reports to the Park Board - if you wish to have a report to Council it should be directed to me to bring back.   
"The more important issue is that the Park Board instructed their GM to continue negotiations on a new contract with the CCAs. It would put both the Park Board and the City at risk if there was an airing of these issues in regard to impact  publicly. To reassure you there is work underway to ensure that the PB staff appropriately manage any risk in these negotiations. However for this reason the motion is out of order and I will not be allowing it to go out with the agenda. I have reviewed this with the City Solicitor and the Clerk. Please give me a call any time tonight if you get a break or first thing in the am. I am happy to discuss. Thanks so much pb"

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