By Ryan McGreal
Published June 30, 2012
this blog entry has been updated
Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla has refused to respond to a query from The Hamiltonian about the Waterfront Trust, stating that the site organizers to not have "media credentials" and should request a citizen delegation to the General Issues Committee if they want to pursue the issue.
On June 29 at 8:29 PM, The Hamiltonian emailed Councillor Merulla to ask if he would be answering the questions they had earlier sent to him regarding the Waterford Trust.
In an email response at 8:36 PM, Merulla wrote:
I've informed you that I would more than willing to champion your cause as a delegation at GIC thereby ensuring I represent my constituents openly and transparently. Please forward me a request so to appear as a delegation so I can formally get to the bottom of your questions.
The Hamiltonian replied at 9:09 PM:
Respectfully - we will not engage in game playing. It is an inappropriate request. Do you ask the spec to form a delegation each time they have a question.
Merulla wrote back at 9:15 PM, copying local media:
The Spec has national press credentials. Please forward your media credentials to me and I will consult with my residents.
The Hamiltonian replied directly to Merulla at 9:23 PM and wrote:
If you rethink this and would like to answer the question, let us know.
Merulla, in turn, replied to that comment at 9:25 PM and again copied the wider news media:
I've included the national media as well as local. Hence if you rethink your position please let me know!
Half an hour later at 10:02 PM, Merulla replied again:
The Country is waiting on the Hamiltonian! What's it going to be folks!
At 10:14 PM, Merulla sent yet another reply:
Let me tell you what it is going to be! Stop breaking our balls until you have media credentials to request what you are requesting. Until then please feel free to ask council for permission to be a delegation to present your case so we can conscientiously serve our constituents globally.
Finally, at 11:30 PM, Merulla sent out yet another reply:
I look forward to your delegation at GIC considering you do not have media credentials. Having said this I strongly encourage you to come forward as a delegation so council can champion the defeat of your real and or imagined demons thereby ensuring I and all of council are conscientiously serving our constituency.
The replies forwarded by Merulla to the news media excludes some of the emails sent between The Hamiltonian and Merulla. The Hamiltonian has published the full exchange.
In short, Merulla has told The Hamiltonian that he does not regard them as a legitimate news media organization and that as such, he has no obligation to respond to their request for comment.
Last October, Mayor Bob Bratina caused a stir at his first State of the City address when he said that the financial difficulties of Hamilton Entertainment and Convention Facilities Incorporated (HECFI) were "not dissimilar to other agencies, like the waterfront trust and the conservation authority. As a council, we have to confront that."
Council had voted to take direct control of HECFI earlier last year, after the arms-length corporation reported millions of dollars in annual losses that had to be covered with municipal tax revenue.
After the State of the City address, Bratina continued to criticize the Waterfront Trust, noting that the Trust was overdue to submit its 2010 financial statements to the City and suggesting that the Trust was losing money and that the Trust and Port Authority might need to be taken over by an "overarching" agency.
Trust chair Bob Charters said Bratina, a former Trust board member, was "absolutely wrong, and I’m not sure that he knows what he’s talking about," noting that the Trust was not receiving annual subsidies from the City.
Councillor Tom Jackson, a member of the Trust board, argued that the 2010 financial statement had already been submitted to Revenue Canada, and that it would be presented to Council as part of a broader overview of its operations that Council had requested.
The November 14, 2011 presentation to Council reported that the Trust had a $890,000 deficit for 2010 due to one-time costs, and that the original $6 million trust fund had been reduced to $500,000 after the Trust had managed $15 million in projects since 2000.
In the face of Bratina's suggestion of mismanagement, Council unanimously voiced its continued confidence in the Trust. Councillor Merulla apologized for Bratina's "offensive" comments, and Councillor Jackson said the criticism was "unfair" and came from "a small, consistent cabal of people".
The matter seemed to be at rest until June of this year, when the Bay Observer published a report accusing the Trust of "questionable accounting practices" including "Instances of altered invoices for projects undertaken, apparent conflicts of interest, ineligible HST claims, and a strongly-worded letter by an auditor pointing out numerous areas of concern, including chaotic bookkeeping."
In particular, the article, written by Bay Observer editor John Best, called out the Trust for spending $681,000 on a beach canal washroom in order to cover cost overruns in another project, which had come in $1.3 million over its $2.3 million budget.
The Hamiltonian jumped on the story and sent out a list of ten questions to the Trust and Council. They published responses from Councillors Chad Collins and Jason Farr, as well as City finance chief Rob Rossini, who responded to two questions.
Councillor Jackson subsequently responded referring back to Rossini's response and saying The Hamiltonian's questions were "based on the [Bay Observer]'s unfortunate, in some circumstances, regurgitated allegations and that the B.O's story seems to be sourced from the same, small cabal of HWT critiques, who possibly, for whatever reason(s), loath the work of the HWT."
Meanwhile, the Bay Observer published a follow-up article reporting that the Trust posted a $474,000 loss for 2011.
Politically, this story has a lot of moving parts and a complex web of overlapping political interests.
A finding of financial and procedural impropriety in the Trust would validate Mayor Bratina's criticism last year and cast Council's vote of confidence in a troubling light - especially Council members of the Trust board who have defended its operations.
On the other hand are suggestions that the attacks on the Trust come from a small "cabal" of opponents with a political agenda. Bratina's chief of staff, Peggy Chapman, was formerly a writer for the Bay Observer and the magazine has tended to defend the Mayor against criticisms from other news media, particularly the Hamilton Spectator.
Councillor Merulla has been among the most vociferous critics of Bratina on Council and was behind the historic vote, earlier this year, to Censure the mayor over his conduct with respect to a pay raise granted to his chief of staff. Recall that in November, Merulla made a point of apologizing to the Trust for Bratina's words.
The Hamiltonian has been barking up this particular tree steadily for the past couple of weeks. I don't know whether there's a cat up there or not: whether the accusations of impropriety and mismanagement have merit - though there does seem to be enough uncertainty to warrant an audit to clear the air one way or the other.
However, the apparent stonewalling of The Hamiltonian's questions does nothing to instill confidence. Even if you feel, as Charters, Plessl and some councillors surely do, that the line of questioning lacks merit, it should not be difficult to lay these concerns to rest with some straight answers.
There are a lot of competing agendas at play, and it would be easy to dismiss it all as a lot of drama - except that Merulla's excuse for not responding to The Hamiltonian sets a dangerous precedent in how city politicians deal with independent community media.
The City's Media Relations Policy, reviewed last year and updated in March 2012, states the guiding principles of the City's media relations:
The City of Hamilton recognizes the vital role media has in City communications and the need to respond to media requests with promptness, courtesy, honesty, and respect. We welcome the opportunity to communicate accurately and clearly about City programs, services, and issues.
The City maintains positive working relationships with all forms of media (i.e. print, broadcast and electronic) that reach national, regional, local, neighbourhood, community, and ethnic audiences.
The City produces and distributes information to the media that has news value, and is timely, clear, accurate, and accessible.
The City maintains an open, transparent communications process that enables media to have access to City decision-makers and knowledgeable staff.
The City’s media relations activities comply with municipal legislation, corporate policies and council directives.
The policy states the City's definition of "media":
The City of Hamilton defines media as any print, radio, television or online media outlet. This includes national, regional, local, neighbourhood, community and ethnic media outlets, Online media refers to websites that publish news, investigative reports, analysis, commentary, events and/or general information.
The summary of the media policy that was presented to council states:
Extensive consultation took place with internal and external stakeholders; this included local media, institutions and other municipalities. The Media Relations Policy affirms the City’s intent to continue to move toward being an open and accountable organization, in addition to on-going improvments to its relationships with the media (including all print and broadcast media, online and social media outlets). The policy also sets out clear expectations and a set process for the dissemination of information to the public.
(Disclosure: I was consulted by the City as part of their review of the Media Relations Policy.)
Of course, the Media Relations Policy applies to City staff, not Councillors. However, Council approved this policy and Councillors would be wise to behave in a manner consistent with the staff policy they adopted.
In May 2011, several members of Hamilton's community media - including Raise the Hammer and The Hamiltonian - spoke out against a proposal by Peggy Chapman to bring in a Queen's Park-style press gallery that would be open to journalists "if you have a boss".
A Joint Statement signed by several local media organizations and citizens responded:
We, the undersigned, call on the City of Hamilton and the Mayor's Office to adopt a policy of openness and transparency that recognizes the right of ordinary Hamiltonians to access information and speak to local officials, in the spirit of democracy and civic engagement that is one of the hallmarks of this city.
The revised Media Relations Policy was, in part, a response to the uncertainty over what constitutes the media, as City Manager Chris Murray explained in his response to the Joint Statement.
The new policy was carefully worded to allay the fear that City Hall would attempt to freeze out the alternative media - but now Merulla has re-opened that can of worms.
Update: Updated to include a link to The Hamiltonian's published account of the emails exchanged with Merulla. You can jump to the added paragraph.