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City rejects request for text messages with parkade developer

It is important to note that it is the substance of the communication, and not the mode of communication, that matters," a spokesperson for the Office of the Information and Privacy Officer for B.C. said in an email.

An attempt by The Citizen to obtain text and instant messages between Mayor Lyn Hall and downtown parkade developer A &T Project Developments regarding cost overruns on the project has hit a brick wall.

Emails obtained earlier by The Citizen earlier this year through a freedom of information request imply A & T partner Frank Quinn reached out to Hall by text message sometime between July 6 and July 9, 2018 – just days after A & T provided an update for the project, showing the parkade would be more than $7 million over budget (see PARKADE TIMELINE, below). In a press conference on Jan. 25 this year, Hall said other than one initial email to him on July 4, 2018, he had no further updates on the cost overruns on the parkade until a report came before council on Dec. 7, 2020.

On April 1, the Citizen filed a freedom of information request with the city, asking for copies of the text and/or instant messages between Hall, Quinn, A & T president Jeff Arnold, former city manager Kathleen Soltis and then-city general manager of planning and development Ian Wells from July 2018. The request included any messages on Hall's personal and city cell phone that met the criteria.

"We were advised by Mayor Hall that (his city phone number) is the only cellular telephone number that he has used to conduct City business. He also advised us that he conducted a search of this City-issued phone and he confirms he does not have any records responsive to your request. He confirmed that this search includes other forms of instant messaging (including WhatsApp)," city information coordinator Joan Switzer wrote in a response to the Citizen's request on May 14. "We were advised by Ian Wells that he conducted a search of his City-issued cellular phone and he confirms he does not have any records responsive to your request. As with the Mayor, Ian Wells confirmed that his search included other forms of instant messaging (including WhatsApp)."

In her letter, Switzer said Soltis' phone is no longer accessible to the city to conduct a search.

"Ms. Soltis is no longer employed by the City and, consistent with City policies, assumed ownership of that phone upon leaving the City’s employment. We are therefore not able to determine if it contains any responsive records," Switzer wrote. "In addition, because the City cellular phone issued to Kathleen Soltis is not in the City's custody or control, we contacted the City’s cellular service provider and we were advised that 'TELUS does not collect or store the content of text or multi-media messages as there is no business need to do so.'"

A spokesperson for the Office of the Information and Privacy Officer for B.C. declined to comment on the specific case, but provided information regarding local governments' obligations under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

"Where public officials use text messaging as part of their business operations, the contents of the text messages are records of the public body (even if the official is using their personal device), and subject to FIPPA. It is important to note that it is the substance of the communication, and not the mode of communication, that matters," the spokesperson said in an email. "Any destruction that takes place after a request for those records can be investigated by this office to determine whether that action violated a public body’s duties to respond 'openly, accurately and completely' to a request for access."

While FIPPA does offer direction regarding record retention, it is up to local governments to set their own rules and policies around record management, the spokesperson said. The provincial legislation is "very limited when it comes to prescribing standards or requirements" for local government bodies.

"(But) under FIPPA, public bodes are required to conduct an 'adequate search' for records, and may be required to demonstrate that its search efforts have been thorough and comprehensive, and that it has explored all reasonable avenues to locate records," the spokesperson said. 

"FIPPA applies to all records in the custody or control of a public body, meaning public bodies are responsible for records created for the public body even if the records are not physically held by the public body," the spokesperson added. "However, several factors can be used to determine if a public body has 'control' over certain records, so some analysis is often involved to make this determination. Depending on the factors in each case, it is possible that records on a personal device could be responsive to an (Freedom of Information) request."

At the provincial level, all B.C. government officials and employees are required to follow the Information Management Act. While local governments aren't subject to the act, it sets out requirements and best practices for B.C. government officials regarding record keeping, including when to keep records of text and instant messages.

"Government bodies need to create and keep complete and accurate records sufficient to document their decision-making and work activities. This applies to all types of government records, including documents in all formats and workspaces that provide the best evidence of government business activities, transactions, policy or decisions," a guide published for B.C. government employees about the act says. "In general, text messages and other instant messaging applications should not be used to carry out important discussions where key decisions are to be made."

Government officials aren't required to keep text or instant messages considered to be of transitory importance – things like “Is this morning’s meeting still on?”or “Do you have time to talk/meet?” However, any text or instant message "that provides evidence of a decision or work activity" must be saved and entered into a records management system.


Through a series of freedom of information requests, the Citizen has obtained information about who knew what and when, regarding the cost overruns on the city's downtown parkade project. The preliminary budget for the project was $12.6 million, but the final cost came to $34.16 million – $22.46 million for the parkade, $597,138 to connect the parkade to the city's district energy system, and $11.1 million for water and sewer upgrades in the area, and other off-site works.

On July 4, 2018 former city manager Kathleen Soltis forwarded Mayor Lyn Hall an email from A &T Project Developments partner Frank Quinn, in which Quinn warned of "very large overruns" on the project. In her email, Soltis said she would inform the mayor when she knew more.

Later that day, A & T president Jeff Arnold sent the city a detailed spreadsheet, showing the project would be more than $7 million overbudget.

A city spokesperson confirmed that then-city general manager of planning and development Ian Wells and one member of his staff meet with Quinn on Friday, July 6, 2018. A meeting invitation obtained by The Citizen through a Freedom of Information request appears to show Wells inviting Soltis, city manager of development services Deanna Wasnik, city manager of economic development Melissa Barcellos and city manager of sustainable community development Tiina Schaeffer to a meeting with Frank Quinn.

Soltis sent a reply declining the invitation.

On Monday, July 9, 2018, Soltis sent an email to Wells, with the subject "Fw: Parkade Prince George Costing." 

"How did things go with A&T on Friday?" Soltis asked Wells at 11:05 a.m.

"It went very well," Wells replied via email, 23 minutes later. "We indicated that they need to continue to get the best prices, and that City could not change the partnering agreement without Council Approval. Frank thought that Lyn needed to show some leadership regarding our salaries. Frank sent him a text offering to help. Call me if you need more info."

A city spokesperson confirmed that the Frank mentioned in the email was Frank Quinn, of A & T.

At 7:42 p.m. on July 9, 2018, Soltis replied, "Thanks, Ian. I talked with Lyn last night and he generally mentioned Frank's advice to me."

On March 11, 2019, more than eight months after the city received the updated project budget from Arnold, city council approved the amended city financial plan by adding the parkade project. Council was asked to approve the initial, preliminary budget of $12.6 million. 

On Sept. 24, 2019, Arnold emailed Wells another updated budget, this time showing the project budget had grown to $22.64 million. 

On Nov. 19, 2019, the city's finance and audit committee which includes Hall and councillors Garth Frizzell, Frank Everitt and Cori Ramsay, received an update on the city's capital projects, including the parkade. The committee was told the total spending on the parkade project, as of Nov. 5, 2019, was at $16.37 million. 

Then on Aug. 31, 2020, city council was asked to approve the city's annual report, which showed the total spending to date on the parkade at more than $17.96 million. It was that report, which prompted Coun. Brian Skakun to put forward a motion asking for a report on the budget status of the parkade project. 

It was only on Dec. 7, when council received a report from Wells – by that time the acting deputy city manager after the departure of Soltis – that the full extent of the cost overrun of the project was revealed.