By Gerry Barker
November 4, 2016
In the past week, I have attempted to obtain a copy of the minutes of that closed-session meeting of council that approved those three elephant-sized increases to the three top senior employees.
The meeting was held last December 10. There was no public announcement of the outcome, the reason, or how council decided the increases were warranted. Council obviously approved the increases.
In March, the size of the increases was published in the Provincial Sunshine List naming all employees in the province earning more than $100,000 per year. The List named the employee, the before-tax salary plus taxable benefits and the individual’s job title.
The city clerk turned down my request stating that closed-session council meeting are not a matter of the public record.
Last Friday I asked the Ombudsman’s office to investigate this closed-door meeting. I was informed that the Ombudsman could not investigate because Guelph has it’s own Closed-Session Investigator. As it turns out, the same designated investigator has been on the job since January 1, 2008.
There is only one investigation listed on the Closed-Session Investigator website. That’s over ten years.
It took another email to the clerk to be told how and where on the city website I could file a closed-session complaint. You have to wonder why Mr. O’Brien did not inform me of this when I asked for the minutes.
This is another example of how the City of Guelph has rules and procedures that for the most part, are designed to protect the interests of council and staff as opposed to the interests and trust of the people who pay the bills.
After eight years of the virtual dictatorship of the former mayor who created this Byzantium labyrinth of self-serving controls, there seems to be little change, instead of serving the public openly and with accuracy.
Any time when I attempt to obtain information from the administration I think I’m living in the Guelph Gulag.
These Farbridge inspired rules of procedure and control are still in place today. In fact there is a 2016 procedural bylaw, signed by Mayor Guthrie that is an echo of the former version that dominated public affairs for eight years.
Earlier this year, he attacked a citizen’s criticism of Ms. Pappert and her record in office for five years. The trouble was the report signed by Rena Akerman, ignited his honour to threaten legal action. It never happened.
Oh, it is now easy to understand the Mayor’s loyalty to the senior management. He stuck with former CAO Ann Pappert at the expense of citizen’s having an uncomfortable feeling about his threat and their rights of freedom of speech.
So here we have a citizen relating facts about Ms. Pappert’s performance and being threatened by the Mayor, using the power of his office to unleash the city legal department.
Recently this apparent staff loyalty problem surfaced when the Mayor commented when Pat Fung dared to direct a question at DCAO Mark Amorosi presenting his report to council. The Mayor said: “I find it a bit disturbing that people would come in here and challenge our staff in this way.”
Gee! I didn’t know we elected a King instead of a Mayor
What does Mayor Guthrie mean when he adds, “in this way?” Are the people he represents not supposed to complain when accurate facts of financial mismanagement are exposed? Which “way” should the people react and respond?
Our Mayor seems to have drifted away from representing the people, who supported him, to go out of his way to protect the hired help. Does he seriously believe that there aren’t people in the city who clearly understand the gross mismanagement of the city that he promised to correct?
Well, we now know that Mayor Guthrie convened that closed-session meeting last December 10. It resulted in three top managers receiving excessive salary and pension benefits. And he and members of council never said a word. Not even after the provincial Sunshine List let the cat out of the bag four months later.
It shows that we have a council that doesn’t really care what the people say or think. These so-called town hall meetings that some councillors are conducting to get public opinions to the upcoming 2017 city budget, are an empty gesture to the myth of accountability in Guelph.
When it comes to two-way conversations with the administration, we don’t need more examples of suppression of information, stonewalling and lying by omission.
For example, why did Mayor Guthrie convene that Salary-Gate meeting when he had the power to say no?
Or, why did he complain that he didn’t like citizen activism questioning senior staff?
Why does he have temper tantrums with people who make statements he doesn’t like?
Why is he so beholden to senior staff? One that has been shattered under his watch with firings without cause, resignations, rescinded resignations, and a senior employee lawsuit demanding $1 million for wrongful dismissal?
Through it all, he remains impervious to any criticism from informed citizens such as Pat Fung, a Chartered Accountant and Certified Public Accountant, who is an expert about finances. There is not one city official that has his financial accreditation and experience. Not on council and not on staff.
Yet, council and the administration ignore Mr. Fung’s analysis of city finances and a plan to fix the growing financial status of the city.
However, despite the Guelph Mercury Tribune blocking publication of the report, the details are out and more and more citizens are becoming aware. There is no doubt that this will be a major election issue in 2018.
Accordingly, Mr. Fung and I have appealed the Tribune’s refusal to carry the story and refused a full-page ad, to the National NewsMedia Council. Here is part of that submission:
To the National NewsMedia Council
From Gerry Barker & Pat Fung CPA, CA
Subject: The following is a complaint regarding biased coverage of the Guelph Mercury Tribune newspaper, subsidiary of Metroland Publishing Corporation, owned by TorStar Corporation
August 18, 2016 – Pat Fung delivered a copy to all 13 members of city council and to the Mercury Tribune of his analysis of the City of Guelph’s finances all taken from public documents either from the City or Public Salary Disclosure. Attached is a copy of that letter.
After several emails back and forth and cutting down the August 18 letter to about 400 words as requested by the editor of the Mercury Tribune, attached is an August 25th email from the Trib. The following response was received on August 30th:
“In the form of a letter to the editor, the statements and questions posed here are framed as fact for political purposes. We simply can’t publish this as is.”
August 25, 2016 – Mr. Fung contacted Mr. Barker, the editor of the blog known as www.guelphspeaks.ca. Barker believed that Mr. Fung’s message was important for all citizens of Guelph to read. Barker split the analysis into two parts and published it on his blog. He said he would raise money to buy a full-page ad in the Tribune (controlled circulation of 45K on Thursdays) so citizens would read the analysis.
The blog’s viewer response set a three-day response record.
September 26, 2016, Barker delivered copy for a full-page ad to the Tribune advertising representative with a cheque for $2,083. Concerned Guelph residents raised the funds and the ad was to be published in its September 28th edition of the Tribune.
September 28, 2016 – Two days later, Barker received a call from the Tribune ad rep saying there were “red flags” raised about the ad copy. Following questioning by Barker, the ad copy was refused by the Tribune on the grounds it was not documented, lacked sources of the information and was “inflammatory.” When asked for specifics, Barker was told that they would verbalize their objections but would not put their objections in writing.
The result was a totally incomplete and unreasonable verbal explanation, the ad never ran and the cheque was returned. Mr. Fung and Mr. Barker are well aware that a publication has the right to turn down advertising if it chooses.
But in this case, the Tribune Editor made it clear the Fung analysis or any form of it was not going to run. When the Editor told Mr. Fung his work is too “political,” and the advertising department claims the ad copy was “inflammatory,” you can only conclude it wasn’t going to run in the Guelph Mercury Tribune.
Mr. Fung’s presentation to city council and the ad copy is attached.
In this case, it was clear this newspaper, publishing twice a week, was deliberately blocking a legitimate news story that affected the entire community. The attached copy of Mr. Fung’s original statement clearly states his sources to make the analysis, including examining years of city Financial Information Reports submitted annually to the Province’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs. He also used information contained in the BMA management consultant’s report in 2014. This information compared basic costs of operations in Guelph with other similar sized cities in Ontario.
In our opinion, the newspaper, the only print newspaper publishing in the City of 121,000 residents, has made the analysis “political” because it has denied exposure of this important report that affects all citizens. The paper’s Editor made no attempt to assign a reporter to check the report or even interview the author.
The Editor’s demand that Mr. Fung reduce a 2,800-word document with supporting charts, to 400 words was nothing but a misguided excuse not to publish it at all.
One of the reasons management is refusing to publish the report, may be the paid advertising linage the paper receives from the City of Guelph titled “City News” that is funded by the taxpayers. The city refuses to reveal the cost of this advertising but the volume of full and partial full-page ads per week would indicate a cost estimated to be more than $450,000 a year. This is based on buying the equivalent of six full pages weekly each year. This advertising volume is estimated to make the City of Guelph one of the largest advertisers in the Tribune.
As a retired newspaper executive, Barker has experienced several cases of print media bias, particularly among the smaller community newspapers. He knows because he owned a community newspaper in a small town. He is a past president of the former Ontario Weekly Newspaper Association in Ontario.
But Guelph is not a small town and the record of extreme editorial support for the city administration borders on a tainted editorial responsibility that belies fair journalistic standards.
In Barker’s experience as a professional newsman working for the largest newspaper in Canada and owning one of the smallest, he has never seen such blatant abuse of editorial responsibility refusing to present both sides of an important and thoroughly documented story.
It’s no wonder the media today is held in such disregard. Newspapers are not elected to office nor should they be lap dogs for special interests.
In this case, this newspaper and its controlling corporations put their special interest first before their readers. And we wonder why newspapers are disappearing. One of these included the Metroland daily, The Guelph Mercury, that was shut down last January. It was the paper of record for more than 100 years.
We, on behalf of fellow citizens of Guelph, respectfully request that the National NewsMedia Council sanction the actions of the Guelph Mercury Tribune, if for no other reason than to remind owners and citizens of responsibility to report important factual information to it readers.