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.


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

One person is dead after a camper van caught fire Thursday morning in Victoria's Beacon Hill Park. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
One person dead after vehicle fire in Beacon Hill Park

Investigation into Victoria death in early stages

Protestors against old growth logging gather in front of the courthouse in Victoria on Thursday morning. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)
Fairy Creek protesters gather at Victoria courthouse

Logging company seeks injunction to remove blockades near its Port Renfrew operation

Victoria police are searching for a federal offender who is wanted Canada-wide after his statutory release was suspended. (Courtesy of Victoria Police Department)
Victoria police searching for federal offender wanted Canada-wide

Warrant issued after offender’s statutory release suspended

A recently finished $4.3-million taxiway extension at the Victoria International Airport (not pictured) is unusable because of a blind spot. (Black Press Media file photo)
Blind spot leaves Victoria airport’s new $4.3-million taxiway extension unusable

Solution has been put on hold by COVID-19 pandemic, says airport authority

Lansdowne Middle School.
(Black Press Media File Photo)
Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of March 2

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: How’s your butter?

Recent reports have some Canadians giving a second look to one of… Continue reading

B.C. research reveals how pandemic has changed attitudes towards sex, health services

CDC survey shows that 35 per cent of people were worried about being judged

Some Canadians are finding butter harder than usual, resulting in an avalanche of social media controversy around #buttergate. (Brett Williams/The Observer)
#Buttergate: Concerns around hard butter hit small B.C. towns and beyond

Canadians find their butter was getting harder, blame palm oil in part one of this series

Construction takes place on Bamfield Main in early February 2021. (PHOTO COURTESY CTV NEWS)
Ongoing Bamfield roadwork unrelated to planned $30M fix

Construction by Mosaic unrelated to $30M upgrade ordered in wake of fatal bus crash

The Regional District of Nanaimo’s board is forwarding a motion on illegal dumping to the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities’ upcoming annual general meeting. (Kane Blake photo)
Island communities asked to join forces in seeking help fighting illegal dumping

RDN resolution to be forwarded to Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon speaks in the B.C. legislature, describing work underway to make a small business and tourism aid package less restrictive, Dec. 10, 2020. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends deadline for tourism, small business COVID-19 grants

Business owners expect months more of lost revenues

Mid day at the Vancouver Port Intersection blockade on March 3, organized by the Braided Warriors. (Zoë Ducklow photo)
Anti-pipeline blockade at Vancouver intersection broken up by police

Demonstraters were demanding the release of a fellow anti-TMX protester

Most Read