Friday, May 24, 2013

Spendthrifts Ballem and Hayden exposed by Canadian Taxpayers' Federation

So what if the Ottawa Senators are out of the Stanley Cup playoffs? 

Their logo is that of a Centurion and they play in Kanata, not Ottawa. 

Anyways, the lockout-shortened 2013 NHL campaign is being played under a big, fat asterisk. 

In a matter of days, the worst-kept secret will be made official. The Kanata Centurions will be the opposition for the Vancouver Canucks at B.C. Place Stadium in the NHL’s Stadium Series of shinny gargantuan gimmick in 2014. An NHL advance crew was in B.C. Place earlier in May to plan logistics for the event, expected to draw up to 59,000. They even measured where the temporary rink will go on the synthetic turf surface. 
"Petro Penny"

Who was more entertaining and productive than Daniel Alfredsson this week? Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation's B.C. office. He scored a pair of hat-tricks on the Freedom of Information front against spending sprees by Vision Vancouver and B.C. Pavilion Corporation bigwigs.

First he scored expense reports for Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem, chief of staff Mike Magee and Mayor Gregor Robertson’s sidekick Kevin Quinlan.  

Among Ballem’s expenses are tanks of gas purchased in Whistler, where she has a cabin with her partner Marion Lay. 

Mayor Gregor Robertson was not interested in answering my questions about Ballem's spending when I saw him at the media-invited opening ceremony of the Society for Information Display convention on May 21 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Robertson claimed he had to get to a tour of the convention floor and didn't have time to answer my lone question about Ballem's spending. Luckily, CKNW's Janet Brown cornered Robertson a day later, but his answers were a tad weak.

Then Bateman notched a hat-trick and a bonus marker over the expense reports of PavCo poobahs. 

CEO Dana Hayden bills taxpayers $2,200 a month for her Vancouver accommodation and spent $50 on fuel to travel to Langley to meet with PavCo chair and Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender (the Surrey-Fleetwood Liberal MLA-elect). 
"Harbour Air Hayden"

Fassbender’s city hall claims to be environmentally sustainable. Instead of using a phone or Skype, Hayden drove all the way to Langley. 

In September 2012, when Coal Harbour neighbours were meeting with PavCo officials to complain about floatplane noise and fumes, Hayden was commuting to Victoria.

“Harbour Air” Hayden’s expense report shows flights on Sept. 10, 13, 17, 20, 24 and 27. The first three were for $160.82 each and the other three $168.32 each.

Howard “Was He Pushed Or Did He Jump?” Crosley became B.C. Place Stadium’s ex-general manager on May 21. Hayden sent a memo to staff a week after the provincial election to announce Crosley’s departure after 15 years at the helm. 

Crosley’s expenses include $115.65 on June 11, 2011 for maintenance at Morrey Nissan, $42.46 for tire repair for a Nissan Rogue on March 22, 2011 and $224.48 for tire purchase for a Nissan Rogue on March 26, 2011. 

Crosley was replaced by Ken Cretney, the Vancouver Convention Centre general manager who was elevated to chief operating officer of PavCo. 

Warren Buckley’s departure from the CEO role in summer 2012 opened the door for Hayden. 
His expense report shows a $41.54 meal on Sept. 6, 2011 for a peacemaking meeting with Josh Blair of Telus and then-CEO Paul Barber of the Bell-sponsored Vancouver Whitecaps. 

That was three weeks before the reopening of B.C. Place, which was supposed to become Telus Park. The government eventually paid the Liberal-friendly telecom $15.2 million.

A $69.55 meal expense on March 25, 2011 shows Buckley lunched with John Christison of the Washington State Convention Centre. During the 1990s, Buckley and Christison were partners in a consultancy that was called, wait for it, Buckley-Christison. 

Buckley said he was invited to visit the Seattle Sounders and met Christison for a tour of his facility, and to discuss convention business and industry trends, “but certainly no connection to Buckley-Christison.” 

“I never participated in the practice and earned no fees at all," Buckley once told me. "He did continue however to use my surname.”

Burrard Bridge's safety secrecy

The May 23 partial collapse of the 1955-built, Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington has sparked a renewed interest in the structural safety of bridges across the continent. 

In Vancouver, the Burrard Street Bridge will turn 81 years-old on July 1. The 1932-built concrete and steel bridge cost $3 million to build, but is visibly crumbling and rusting. A seismic upgrade program finished in 2006. Bike lanes were installed in 2009 at a cost of $1.3 million. 

The Burrard Bridge's uncertain future was the focus of my Investigators segment on the Simi Sara Show on CKNW AM 980 on May 24. Unfortunately, neither city hall's chief engineer Peter Judd nor city hall spokeswoman Mairi Welman responded to my requests for comment. 

In 2012, City of Vancouver paid almost $1.24 million to Associated Engineering to conduct a series of reports. More than 500 pages of were released to me via Freedom of Information, but almost 380 pages have been "greyed-out" -- withheld in their entirety, like the one on the right. City hall claims the reports contain advice that, if disclosed, could harm the city financially. 

The minuscule amount of information that is visible claims the bridge is in fair or poor condition. While it does not indicate imminent danger, the lack of information disclosed raises important questions about whether it really is safe. The detailed report card on the bridge and cost estimates were censored. Why does Vision Vancouver want to hide information from you about such an important piece of the city's infrastructure? 

The reports I received via FOI are linked below. Click on the titles and see for yourself. Notice all the censored pages. 

UPDATE (May 27): I found the following online about different bridges in different B.C. jurisdictions on Vancouver Island: Reports about the E&N Railway bridges and the Johnson Street Bridge. Perhaps City of Vancouver could learn a lesson about transparency from these documents. Meanwhile, the Ontario provincial government offers information about its bridges. Ontario proactively discloses a list of bridges that includes names, locations, condition rating, ages and most-recent year of inspection. B.C.'s government has a database, but, according to the Ministry of Transportation, is "very technical and wasn't designed as a public-facing website, but we are looking at ways we can provide information to the public."

Vision Vancouver: "Greyest City 2013 Secrecy Plan"
Burrard Street Bridge Condition Assessment Report 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Smart meter info kept secret until after the election

So-called smart meters were among the multitude of grievances British Columbians had with the ruling BC Liberals, who were surprisingly given another four years to govern on May 14 when not enough voters showed up at the polls to force a change.

While Health Canada claims there is no public health risk, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has a multitude of concerns about the new technology's proliferation around North America. There are also interesting connections between the Liberals and the smart meter industry and questions persist about why the program was exempted from full regulatory vetting by the B.C. Utilities Commission. Is this billion-dollar program really about energy efficiency?

Meanwhile, outgoing Auditor General John Doyle blew the whistle on BC Hydro's deferral of billions of dollars of costs. As Doyle put it, the Crown corporation has created "the appearance of profitability where none actually exists." As such, Rafe Mair boldly predicts that BC Hydro will be privatized.

So how did smart meters not become part of the election discourse? Premier Christy Clark and her Liberals set the agenda by pushing pipelines. The media became fascinated by polls. Adrian Dix and the NDP were too little, too late with criticism for the Liberals. Smart meters were part of the low-hanging fruit that the NDP ignored to their detriment. And BC Hydro exploited B.C.'s weak and poorly enforced Freedom of Information laws.

On Jan. 30, I made a request for information about the smart meter program's one-year completion delay. BC Hydro finally sent me the documents on May 15.

The day after voting day.

Here is my Business in Vancouver story. The documents are below.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Exclusive: Management shakeup at B.C. Place

One week after the BC Liberals were re-elected, a management shakeup at B.C. Place Stadium. 

B.C. Pavilion Corporation CEO Dana Hayden notified staff on May 21 that Howard Crosley, the stadium’s general manager of 15 years, is out. 

Vancouver Convention Centre general manager Ken Cretney’s responsibilities have been expanded to cover B.C. Place. His new title is chief operating officer.

“I know we all wish Howard well, and I want to thank him for his work and dedication over the years,” said Hayden’s memo.

Crosley managed the stadium through the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and the $514 million, taxpayer-funded renovation. Under his watch, however, the November 2006 death of janitorial worker Pritam Kaur Sandhu went unreported to WorkSafeBC and the roof ripped and collapsed in a preventable January 2007 incident that led to the controversial renovation. 

Reporting to Cretney are B.C. Place assistant general manager Kathy deLisser and Vancouver Convention Centre assistant general manager Craig Lehto. 

The stadium’s director of sales and marketing Graham Ramsay and convention centre’s vice-president of sales and marketing Claire Smith report directly to Hayden. Stadium spokesman Duncan Blomfield and his convention centre counterpart Jenny Wu report to Kate Hunter, PavCo’s director of communications and stakeholder relations. 

Expect a PavCo board shuffle soon. Chair Peter Fassbender was elected as a BC Liberal MLA in Surrey-Fleetwood in the May 14 election. He did not step aside while seeking political office, despite Board Resourcing and Development Office Conduct Principles. Director Suzanne Anton won election for the BC Liberals in Vancouver-Fraserview. 

Meanwhile, National Hockey League staff planning the 2014 Stadium Series paid B.C. Place a scouting visit earlier this month. The official announcement is coming soon. The Vancouver Canucks are expected to host the Ottawa Senators in front of as many a 59,000 people next March. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Of Times of India and Taxpayers of British Columbia: The Sequel

The B.C. Liberal government did its best to keep Times of India Film Awards information away from you and me during its successful re-election campaign.

On Jan. 22, via Freedom of Information, I asked for records about the controversial April 6 B.C. Place Stadium Bollywood awards. I wanted the contract and the business case. Jan. 22 was the day Premier Christy Clark announced TOIFA and, coincidentally, when thousands of film industry workers gathered at North Shore Studios to promote the Save B.C. Film campaign.

After the government invoked a delay, I finally received some of the records from the Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training Ministry on May 13 -- the day before voting day. I reported on the documents on The World Today with Jon McComb on CKNW AM 980. I got some more documents from the Finance Ministry on May 17, three days after election day.

I have published those records below. I am disappointed to say that there are still more questions than answers. You will see that the government has withheld most of the information.

Below you will see a Financial Impact Assessment dated Oct. 9, 2012 and the Nov. 27, 2012 Treasury Board approval from Finance Minister Mike de Jong (who danced for the crowd of 35,000). Notice in de Jong's letter to Pat Bell that the funds came from contingencies. With four months remaining in the fiscal year, de Jong was already dipping into the rainy-day fund for non-essential spending. This is the same Finance Minister who claimed on Nov. 28 that he was controlling spending.

The contract with Times of India subsidiary BCCL International Events Private Ltd. was dated Dec. 12, 2012 and the government previously claimed it was worth $9.5 million, but there are no dollar values visible. Which begs the question: how much did this event really cost British Columbians?

Organizers failed to sign any mainstream, Canadian national advertiser as a corporate sponsor. There simply was not enough time. BCCL eventually found a title sponsor. Lux Cozi is a Kolkata-based underwear company that you might say has some dirty laundry. Chairman Ashok Todi was charged by Indian authorities in connection to the 2007 death of his son-in-law. Todi, who has not been proven guilty, and daughter Priyanka were on-stage in B.C. Place Stadium. The awards are scheduled to air on Sony Entertainment Television in India on June 16.

In the contract, the government required BCCL to create an "online virtual data room" -- a glorified website -- containing records about its services. But the very next line in the contract says that any records held by BCCL are beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. This is a new trick that I hope Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham will deem illegal.

The government has the power to show you and me as much or as little as it wants. In this case, it chose secrecy. It conveniently chose to cloak this very expensive event behind the closed doors of cabinet because it knew this was not for the benefit of all. How can we believe the information contained in the government's propaganda?

It is obvious that the Clark Liberals wanted to avoid questions about TOIFA spending after Ontario media outlets got the line-by-line list of costs for the 2011 International Indian Film Academy Awards via FOI. Despite that, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty parlayed IIFA into his re-election. McGuinty's chief of staff was Don Guy, who was part of Clark's 2013 campaign backroom.

Remember: there was no involvement by the Canadian Tourism Commission nor the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. This was not about building bridges between the vibrant South Asian community and the rest of B.C. This was not about multiculturalism. This was about the Multicultural Outreach strategy -- the expenditure of public funds to benefit the ruling party's bid to perpetuate its hold on power.

For $9.5 million, how many more cops could have been investigating unsolved murders and rapes in B.C.? How many homeless people could have been housed? How many cancer patients could have been treated? How many more scientists could have been in labs, trying to solve diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's? 

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