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Prince George to review letter writing policy following music festival grant

Controversy over mayoral support for a $157k grant leads to a policy review
Best Damn Music Festival
Crews set up the stage for the Best Damn Music Festival on Friday morning at the Prince George Exhibition Grounds.

The City of Prince George will now review the process of the mayor writing letters for local businesses, non-profits and elected officials following controversy over the Best Damn Music Festival.

During its Monday night meeting, city council unanimously voted in favour of Coun. Brian Skakun’s motion directing administration to review the process.

This included looking at how the mayor and city administration decide what letters for grants and assistance come before council and what letters are not required to come before council.

Skakun first raised the issue after discovering the Best Damn Music festival was put on with the help of a $157,000 provincial grant through the BC Fairs Festivals and Events Recovery Fund. The music festival was hosted by Kyle Sampson Productions, owned by Prince George city councillor Kyle Sampson.

In Sept. 2021, Sampson received letters of support from Mayor Lyn Hall and the former city manager of economic development supporting Sampson’s application for the grant.

A total of 13 Prince George groups received grants ranging from $250,000 to $7,401, totalling $882,795 for the one-time funding to help community events restart following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Skakun put forward the notice of motion calling for the processes to be both fair and fully transparent and to ensure the mayor’s office informs city council about meetings with regard to funding requests.

In a five-minute speech regarding the issue, Skakun said despite facing backlash on social media he believes this is a serious matter that deserves attention and that he doesn’t believe the current processes aligns with council code of conduct.

“To be clear, this is not about whether or not the letter grant support should have been provided... or whether the grant contributed positively to our community,” said Skakun.

“In my opinion, if there was even a small debate whether or not these letters of support of the grant could or would be considered a conflict of interest or breach of the council code of conduct, administration in my opinion should have chosen to be proactive rather than reactive.”

He said he was concerned a city councillor had been given letter of support without knowledge of council or the public for a personal business.

Skakun said after doing some more research he felt city practices for providing letters for support for grants were flawed and in June he requested a copy of the letters through Freedom of Information requests to the City of Prince George and the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport.

“If administration would have spotted this in the first place, we wouldn't have been here today (and) that would have saved Coun. Sampson and myself from public scrutiny, freed up time to better serve our community with what we were elected to do.”

City manager Walter Babicz then clarified the existing practice for administrative letters of support.

He said requests for letters of support that require a council resolution come as an agenda item, organizations may request letters of support during a delegation to council, or requests for letters of support can be received through the economic development division.

“So, the long-standing practice of the city, as we understand it, has been that those requests for letters of support are reviewed and responded to based on the economic benefit considerations for the community.”

He said individuals and organizations seeking local government services are treated equally and the same criteria is used and from an administrative perspective, individuals who are also members of council are not automatically restricted from accessing city services that their neighbours may access.

While the grant in question wasn’t city dollars and the city was not the decision maker, administration viewed Sampson the same as any other applicant.

However, Babicz said he agrees that a formal council policy is in order and would provide value and certainty on council’s preferred process.

Coun. Cori Ramsay noted that because there is not currently a policy in place, there was no conflict as Sampson was following the process.

“Without policy directing this, I think it's really challenging to make a determination, so I am definitely supporting getting more information on this because I don't want any of my colleagues to have to be put in this situation,” added Ramsay.

Coun. Terri McConnachie said councillors should be differentiated from an everyday non-profit as they have access to inside knowledge and decision making.  

She said while she thinks Sampson’s application had merit, “there should have been a layer in between” and that in moving forward she wants to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Sampson said he followed the steps that were made known to him by the city when asking for support in applying for the provincial grant.

“I can say with conviction that I followed all processes that were shared with me carefully and deliberately,” said Sampson, adding that he is supportive of reviewing the process as well.

“I'm hopeful that this process will mean that other councillors and small business owners in the future can avoid suspicion,” said Sampson.

“I think this is a benefit for any council to review and go through because this should not be coming back after the fact is an issue for a business owner who followed the process so if we can avoid that in the future by going through this, and I support it.”

After an amendment put forward by Coun. Garth Frizzell, council voted unanimously to direct administration to not only review the process but bring also bring back recommendations on a new policy related to writing letters of support.

- with files from Arthur Williams