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James Steidle: Something doesn’t smell quite right at Prince George city hall

"Giving secretive freebees to developers works OK, but it works better if you also undercut local media and its ability to tell the story."
Prince George City Hall 6
City Hall in Prince George.

Canadians are a positive bunch.  We tend to assure ourselves the gangrene-stricken beast of rotten government is nothing to worry about. Best to point out its coat of fur still looks good. Its teeth are still sound.

And so we give it the courage and confidence to stumble along in its wounded state of mediocrity, with no end to its misery in sight.

Take the parkade debacle, where city administration spent tens of millions of dollars to effectively subsidize a private development without city council or the public knowing about it. 

Or selling public land. 

The city sold city-owned land at 4500 Ospika Blvd. to a Vancouver developer behind closed doors and with no notification until the sale was complete. We only found out about the below-market $500,000 sale price through a local resident’s Freedom of Information request.

That was against the law, it turns out, and the city chalked that up to “staff error.” We now advertise public land sales. But I think “simple error” is a slight understatement.

In the same example, the city administration changed the contract without bringing it to city council, absolving us of the ability to buy this land back if things went wrong. Now the developer is saying they can’t build the student housing as they promised.  Yet they still sit on a mud pit, formerly a sensitive bit of public forest. The difference being it is now upzoned, assessed at $3.5 million dollars, and is no longer ours. 

Giving secretive freebees to developers works OK, but it works better if you also undercut local media and its ability to tell the story.  The city used to spend more than $100,000 a year buying newspaper ads that kept us informed and supported local journalism. That funding, and the accountability it paid for, was eliminated last year.

I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this wasn’t done to protect our democratic institutions, which depends on a functional free press.   

I could go on, but it seems this kind of stuff is not specific to Prince George.  This is a deep cultural issue caused by years of corporate and elite influence telling us we can’t trust government.

Margaret Thatcher popularized this concept and its greatest feat was to gradually create a treacherous managerial class within parts of government that not only believes this, but which behaves in ways to increase our lack of trust.

Ron Swanson, a TV character whose goal is to undermine and ultimately destroy the parks department he runs in Parks and Recreation, is not just a laughable fictional character. His character resonates because it is disturbingly real. It is an entire philosophy of governance; cripple democratic collective action by negligence, incompetence, or active sabotage, to the point we give up on it.

We must not.

The alternative is to one day be left with a public commons that is nothing but a carcass for unaccountable hedge fund and private equity scavengers to pick off and privatize, just like BC Rail, once and for all.

James Steidle is a Prince George writer.