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Editorial: The City of Prince George’s ongoing campaign against transparency

The city’s communications department would rather crack fart jokes on Facebook than engage in meaningful, professional communications with local reporters and the public at large.
Prince George taxpayer dollars hard at work: city employees engaging in fart jokes on Facebook

City council quietly voted this summer for Prince George to become the first municipality in B.C. to stop advertising its legal notices in the local newspaper, starting November 1.

Mayor and council approved a recommendation from staff that because this important information is also available to residents on Facebook and the city’s website, there’s no need to buy ad space from the Citizen to inform the public.

Sadly, the current mayor and council accepted that narrative without asking some basic questions.

What kind of online traffic does the City of Prince George’s website receive and specifically the legal notices page on their website get?

Here are the answers. We asked because city council didn’t.

The City of Prince George’s website received 1.3 million page views in all of 2021. The Citizen’s website received 1.3 million page views this past August alone.

The public notices and hearings page on the city’s website saw just 294 visits in all of 2021. Are residents clicking through from the Facebook posts directly to the notices? Three city notices in June received just four, eight and 11 page views.

By comparison, Ted Clarke’s “B.C. motorists with peeling licence plates subject to $230 fine” story in August was read online more than 75,000 times.

City administration would have everyone believe that they’re saving money on advertising. Those legal notices are not advertising, they’re an annual investment of about $120,000 in transparency and open government. That’s a bargain when compared to the $180,000 per year pulled in by the former director of external relations and the $110,000 per year received by the senior communications officer (without factoring in the rest of the city’s communications team).

We certainly recognize our financial conflict of interest in this matter, but there’s much more going on here.

The current communications manager at the city won’t even meet with the Citizen to discuss options on how we can work together to best inform local residents of the important legal work the city does. We all pay local taxes, too, so if there’s a way that we can help the City of Prince George reduce spending, we’re up for that. That’s what we do for all of our clients.

Instead, the city’s communications department would rather crack fart jokes on Facebook. Taxpayers paid for that joke and all of the other flippant remarks city employees have made on social media in the past year. They’d rather engage in online chatter than in meaningful, professional communications with local reporters and the public at large.

And if you’re not on Facebook? Well, that’s your fault, isn’t it?

Clearly, the City of Prince George would rather invest taxpayer money in a multinational company with a shoddy track record of election tampering and undercutting democracy than a local business that supports local jobs.

What’s city administration’s real agenda here? They want to starve the watchdog.

It was the Citizen that informed residents about the huge raises senior managers received in 2016 and 2017, simply because they got new job titles. Those raises far exceeded the increases the unionized city workers got.

It was the Citizen that informed residents that these senior managers received double time overtime pay during the 2017 wildfire crisis, unlike the city’s unionized staff who receive time-and-a-half.

It was the Citizen that filed multiple Freedom of Information requests and devoted hundreds of hours of reporting and research into the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that led to the George Street Parkade spending fiasco. In that case, city administration not only hid the true cost of the parkade from residents but even withheld honest reporting from city council, the elected officials responsible for providing administrative oversight, until they couldn’t keep it under wraps any longer.

That journalism didn’t come from the CBC, nor did it come from Pattison and Vista, the other two local media outlets that also both receive tens of thousands of dollars per year in city advertising. If the Citizen wasn’t here, would residents know about any of these local government transgressions?

Mayor Lyn Hall voted for pulling the legal notices from the Citizen. All we did was ask him for a full explanation of what he knew and when he knew it about the parkade and then called for his resignation when his answer of “how was I supposed to know?” didn’t pass muster.

Coun. Kyle Sampson voted for pulling the legal notices from the Citizen. All we did this summer was report how Sampson may have violated city council policy by getting support letters from Mayor Hall and city staff to receive a $157,000 grant from the province to help pay for a country music festival hosted by Sampson’s private, for-profit company. More to come on that because we’ve filed a Freedom of Information request to see the emails.

Conflict of interest for Sampson and Hall to vote on this matter?

Nobody at the council table asked.

Furthermore, not one councillor at the table asked city administration how they had the time and resources this past spring and early summer to prioritize a report justifying the elimination of advertising of legal notices. That work was completed while the other far more important and challenging issues around crime and homelessness facing local government at this time continued to sit in limbo.

Getting rid of the published legal notices in favour of directing residents to a rarely visited page on the city’s website is simply one more way for city administration to operate without public oversight.

And city council agreed to it with barely a word of discussion.

The next mayor and council must do a better job of insuring full, transparent communications from local government to all citizens, this Citizen included.