Questions go unacknowledged, copies of paper trashed, media table removed
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
In a departure from all previous practice, the Town has removed the designated media table from Council chambers, the latest of a series of efforts seemingly aimed at shutting down Voice coverage of municipal matters.
Since February 20, the Town has not responded to nor even acknowledged receiving questions from the newspaper. The move came as the Voice began scrutinizing another aspect of the Town’s East Fonthill development activities, this time involving tendering for construction contracts worth at least $4 million dollars.
Numerous emails to Public Relations and Marketing Specialist Marc MacDonald, other Town staff, Mayor Dave Augustyn, and all six Councillors have been ignored.
Questions on subjects including a guard rail on Sulphur Spring Drive, Pelham Street water main work, and the abrupt departure of the former executive assistant to the Mayor and the CAO have gone unanswered. Phone messages to MacDonald have been ignored.
Beginning in January, the Voice was informed by residents visiting Town Hall that copies of the papers dropped at the information desk there were disappearing within a few hours of arrival. To test whether the papers were being trashed, or if their rapid depletion was a result of Town employees eager to read the news, the Voice doubled its delivery volume each week for a month.
Finally, after 200 papers vanished shortly after being dropped off, the Voice concluded they were being thrown directly into the garbage—an action later inadvertently acknowledged by a Town Hall employee to a resident. In all, some 500 copies of the paper seem to have been deliberately thrown out.
A request for comment on the matter from all of Council, the Mayor, the CAO, and Public Relations and Marketing Specialist Marc MacDonald was ignored.
Last week the Town announced that it would no longer send out news releases. This advisory came before the Town held a press conference at the community centre construction site, in which it was announced that Meridian Credit Union was to pledge $1 million dollars to the project in return for naming rights.
The Voice was not among the media notified of the event and was not present.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” said former Councillor Sharon Cook, when she heard of the Town’s recent actions.
“I don’t know why they’re casting this veil of secrecy. The media is an asset to the democratic process.”
When she was on Council, Cook acknowledge that there was some news coverage “we didn’t really like.”
“But that was usually when we were doing things that we didn’t want to do,” she said. “It’s part of the whole transparency issue.”
Former Mayor Ron Leavens also cited transparency.
“When you’re involved in politics, you shouldn’t always be looking at the media to be supportive of what you’re doing. One of the big problems around here is that politicians in this town are not used to the kind of investigative reporting that the Voice is doing,” said Leavens.
“It’s probably difficult for them to handle it from that perspective. But at the same time, as a politician, you have to realize that the media has a job to do. And politicians should help them do the job within the limitations that are set up on them by legislation.”
Leavens said that any time politicians move to restrict information, suspicions are raised.
“[The concerns] may not be warranted, but the fact that you’re reducing someone’s access to information that should be public creates a problem,” he said. “The best policy is to put the information out there as much as you possibly can, and let people see what’s going on.”
Leavens added that it’s important for the public to know how Councillors are restricted by legislation.
“When you’re talking about personnel issues, you’re restricted by the Privacy Act. You’re better off keeping your mouth totally shut. If someone leaves a position, the public assumes that they have a right to know why it happened. The public doesn’t generally understand that. The only time they have a right to know is if the party leaving the position wants to tell them,” he said.
Former Councillor Marvin Junkin, who resigned his seat last November on what he said were ethical grounds, said that the Town’s actions weren’t a shock.
“It wasn’t really a surprise, considering that this is the same Council that continues to hide the real financial picture of the Town from residents, cancelled a promised public meeting, and still maintains that everything is hunky-dory,” he said.
“When I first heard of the removal of the media desk, the sheer pettiness of the act made me laugh. Just when you thought that the bar couldn’t get any lower,” continued Junkin.
“When a local government decides to end all communication with the local paper, from which the residents get their local information, I find the action rather disgusting.”
Junkin said that when he was on Council he was often disappointed by the hostility that other Councillors and Town staff had for the Voice, including a point when Council entertained pursuing legal action against the paper and Rainer Hummel, the whistleblowing real estate developer who went public with the Town’s land-for-credits scheme.
“I said that at no time would I vote to muzzle the neighbourhood press,” recalled Junkin, who said that Town Hall was already the subject of resident concerns about transparency, and that it was a “ridiculous idea to be sitting around and thinking about taking the paper to court.”
Voice Publisher Dave Burket says that the paper will not be deterred.
“We will continue to approach the Town of Pelham in good faith and simply ask that they return the courtesy,” he said.
“Stonewalling only energizes reporters, and deepens public mistrust. I hope Town Hall comes to its senses.”
Ron Leavens said that he didn’t know if the Town’s new approach to the media would have been passed through Council.
“Quite frankly, I can’t answer because I’ve never been in a position like that. I’m not sure what the process is,” he said.
To the Voice’s knowledge, Council did not give Town staff direction to ignore the paper’s inquiries, remove the media desk, or trash copies of the paper left for the public.
Unless the matter was discussed behind closed doors—which would be an improper use of an in camera session—it would appear as though this was a decision made unilaterally by CAO Darren Ottaway.
Before taking his position in Pelham in 2012, Ottaway was the CAO of Grande Cache, Alberta, a small mining town of 3500, located some 400 miles west of Edmonton. Ottaway reportedly served for a time in the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery.
When hired as Pelham’s CAO, Ottaway told the Pelham News that a military management style doesn’t work in a municipality.
“I started with a military model,” he said. “It was a complete failure.”