Official statements from the cities of Surrey and White Rock in recent days suggest a disconnect between elected officials and city staff, writes columnist Lance Peverley. (www.surrey.ca, www.whiterockcity.ca images, with slash effect created by Freepik)

COLUMN: Mixed messages on who speaks for cities

Two proclamations from two cities leaves one wondering if politicians, city staff on same page

Twice in recent days, from two different cities, we’ve been served reminders of the sometimes-precarious balance of power at city hall between elected officials and career bureaucrats – both in the form of a media release.

First, it was from the City of White Rock, in response to a damning report from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commission of BC, after an audit of the city’s response to freedom-of-information requests raised “serious concerns.”

“The City is disappointed that the scope of the Audit did not include a review of the specific content of access of information requests or the difficulties faced by White Rock related to vexatious, frivolous, or systematic requests,” the city responded, in an unsigned online statement posted – with a rare emailed notification to Peace Arch News – soon after the report was released on Nov. 22.

As well, it noted: “A small number of other individuals have also been making regular and co-ordinated FOI access requests and seem to be taking the matter to the (OIPC) regardless of the City’s response…”

A strong – albeit aggressively political – argument from the city, which, oddly, it turns out, didn’t come from the politicians.

As was later confirmed by city manager Dan Bottrill, a city staffer authored it and Bottrill signed off on it, but it clearly caught the mayor and councillors by surprise – at least one feeling she might be implicated in the “small number of other individuals” reference.

Within hours, the city’s post was quietly amended to remove offending passages, though there was no online alert or notification this time around.

READ: Audit criticism blames on ‘vexatious’ FOIs

READ: Mayor says city’s statement wasn’t vetted by him

READ: White Rock changes statement on FOI report

Days later, in the wee-est hours of Tuesday, the City of Surrey emitted its own media release.

However, in this case, it reads as though it was likely the bureaucrats – rather than elected officials – who had no opportunity to vet the content.

The Surrey release takes shots at past city leadership after elected leaders were “apprised that the city is currently carrying a debt of $514 million.”

“When the books were shown to me, I was deeply dismayed and shaken to the core to see how much debt the City of Surrey has been carrying,” McCallum was quoted as saying. “The fact that the debt load is at $514 million is simply untenable and frankly, irresponsible.”

Again, a strong – albeit aggressively political – argument from the city. However, had city staffers vetted the release, one would presume the figure would have been more in line with the $267.2-million noted in the city’s financial records.

There’s certainly more to be said on this issue, but McCallum hasn’t exactly been open to questions as of this writing two days later.

READ: Mayor ‘shaken to the core’ over debt

READ: City books at odds with mayor’s account

Regardless, both matters raise the question: who speaks for city hall?

The City of White Rock went through an exercise a few years ago in which this question was officially answered. Typically, I would think, most assume it is the mayor, the city manager and, of course, the communications manager.

But when they don’t quite see eye to eye, I have to wonder how long it will be before we see dueling declarations.

Lance Peverley is the editor of Peace Arch News.

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