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MUNICIPAL ELECTION: Brown’s campaign errors fuel call for greater transparency

City of Victoria's communications department in question

If elected as Victoria’s next mayor, Paul Brown plans to cut the nine-member communications department at city hall.

He made the pronouncement at a recent mayoral debate in Fernwood.

“The emphasis in our city seems to be holding information, screening it,” said Brown. “You want answers in Saanich? You go to the department head, they’ll tell you what the answers are.”

But there’s a problem. There aren’t nine people in the City of Victoria’s communications department. (There are four permanent, two temporary, one part-time and one unfilled position.)

Error aside, the communications department has grown exponentially over the past three years, and Brown’s message is that he’s the guy to cut what he’s sees as the fat.

Staffing numbers, however, have not been the only factual errors dogging his campaign.

The city, he’s argued, has been raising taxes while cutting key programs and services.

“The budget for parks and recreation was cut by 20 per cent over the last three years; this year alone, the city’s budget for grants has been cut by over 40 per cent,” said Brown, rehashing his well-worn examples illustrating the need for accountability at city hall.

“These numbers, Dean, have come right out of your financial statements, so don’t accuse me of pulling numbers out of the air. You should know these numbers,” he continued, chastising Mayor Dean Fortin in front of the audience at Little Fernwood Hall.

They’re strong words, considering he’s wrong on both accounts.

The apparent cut to parks is explained by a simple change in accounting procedures. The change is explained in the 2010 annual report, which Brown failed to catch. He’s since retracted this claim.

The seeming cut to grants is explained by an apples-to-oranges comparison. Brown compared 2010’s final tally to the preliminary 2011 grant commitments, which don’t include ongoing grant applications approved throughout the year.

It’s a simple explanation, if you can get it. And there’s the rub.

Victoria’s documentation on grants provides opaque and conflicting data, with no explanation. It’s a problem Brown has campaigned on fixing.

“When (the city’s publicly available financial) documents do not tell the full picture it proves my point that things are not transparent,” he wrote in an email to the News. Getting clarification requires a call to the city finance department. But there again, Brown argues the city is falling short.

“I’m doing the best I can, and I will stand by what I’m doing … based on the information I have and the unwillingness of people at city hall to release this information. We’ve been trying to get this reconciled for over six months with no success,” Brown said.

By we, Brown refers to his campaign team, on whom he relies for much of his research. Brown himself doesn’t call the staff at City Hall. “Whenever they see my name, there’s an immediate block,” he explained.

Mayor Dean Fortin questions this supposed block.

“My understanding is the City of Victoria does an absolutely amazing job of getting back to people,” he said. “I’m surprised to hear if Mr. Brown is having difficulty. It doesn’t seem to be the experience of anybody else.”

While Fortin said a citizen can expect an answer from the finance department within an hour or two, it’s not been the experience of the News. Because media requests to the finance department must be filtered through the communications department, questions and emailed responses bounced back and forth over three business days, with no satisfactory resolution.

But will cutting the communications department, as Brown intends, improve city communications?

In addition to the deparment’s role in media relations, it is also charged with many tasks aimed at improving transparency and citizen engagement. These include redesigning the city’s website to be more user friendly; posting more city documents in a way that’s easily searchable, in response to council’s decision to adopt a policy of Open Data; and hosting more public events, such as the series of budget workshops the city held in community venues to encourage the public to ask questions and give feedback.

The city’s new public engagement strategy is working, said Fortin, pointing to the 6,000 people who gave input into the city’s’ new Official Community Plan. Transparency and public engagement are commitments that take investment, he points out.

For his part, the mayor has tried to focus on his platform, rather than respond to Brown’s claims point by point.

The conflict, however, has affected Fortin.

At the conclusion of the all-candidates event at Vic West, he again accused Brown of “pulling numbers out of the air” and refused to shake his hand.

Fortin said he apologized and shook his hand the next day.

Brain teaser

Comparing the amount the City of Victoria doled in out grants between 2010 and 2011 is a migraine in the making.

Here’s a snap shot of some of the numbers published in various city documents, simply listed as “Grants.”

$3.4 million: as listed for 2010 in the audited 2010 annual report.

$4.4 million: as listed for 2010 in the 2011-2015 Financial Plan

$3.8 million: as listed for 2011 in the 2011-2015 Financial Plan

$2.0 million: as listed for 2011 in the 2011 Budget P. 34

$1.6 million: as listed for 2011 in the 2011 Budget, P. 103

$2.6 million: as listed for 2011 in an explanatory chart prepared for the mayor

Confused yet? We are

The problem is due, at least in part, to the fact grants fall into different categories. Some cash grants, such as those given to arts, culture and neighbourhood groups, are held constant every year, and total more than $2 million.

Other grants, such as those under the city’s housing trust fund, are distributed throughout the year, and vary from year to year based on the number of applications received. The money is drawn from a dedicated reserve fund.