The City of Prince George, B.C., has been selected as the municipal winner of the 2022 Code of Silence Award for Outstanding Achievement in Government Secrecy. The award highlights the city’s repeated and devastating failures to effectively conduct the public’s business in public by transparently sharing information about how taxpayer dollars are spent on city projects and operations.
“There is a clear pattern of behaviour in Prince George that cannot be allowed to fester any longer,” said Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ).
“The continued campaign against transparency paints a troubling picture of a city operating more like some kind of foreign banana republic than a democratically run municipality willing to be held accountable for its actions.”
In particular, this year’s Code of Silence jury was particularly disturbed by multiple examples of what it determined to be “egregious” actions.
The first example focused on the city’s plans to demolish the Moccasin Flats homeless encampment in November 2021. While a court order ruled against the city’s ability to dismantle the homeless encampment due to a lack of suitable living alternatives, the city proceeded to bulldoze part of the camp in violation of the order, which caused significant harm to residents.
In an effort to understand what transpired in the lead up to the destruction of people’s property, The Prince George Citizen filed Freedom of Information requests that showed the mayor and city council had little or no advance knowledge of the action. The newspaper also learned that the city manager had delegated authority to another manager who worked with BC Housing and there was little consideration given to the impact of the court order on residents living in the encampment.
Second, the Code of Silence jury noted how Kathleen Soltis, then city manager, and other senior staff collected overtime pay at twice their hourly rates during the 2017 Cariboo wildfires evacuation crisis. This came after an analysis of the city’s financial statements showed the city manager had restructured the senior management team and given new titles and big pay raises.
Third, this year’s jury was troubled by how the city manager hid from city council the cost overrun of a local parkade for more than two years. Originally budgeted at a cost of $12 million, city council later found the cost was $34 million.
An investigation into the situation found Lyn Hall, the city’s mayor, was informed of potential financial issues years before but never responded. Instead, a series of emails showed the mayor and city manager began discussing how to increase the bureaucracy’s spending authority, which helped hide the true cost of the overruns.
In other concerning developments, this year’s jury noted how the mayor and city staff helped a city councillor’s private business land a $157,000 provincial grant without any input from the rest of council, even after city employees raised concerns.
Lastly, the city provided misleading information to the public about the suspension of city workers based on their vaccination status. After city officials said no city employees had lost their jobs, nearly two dozen workers spoke out about being suspended without pay and, subsequently, having their jobs posted and filled.
“The activities that have been undertaken to obstruct the public’s right to know in Prince George over the past several years are a veritable buffet of embarrassment that should serve as a wake-up call to public officials across the country,” said Jolly. “Efforts to throw journalists off the scent of malfeasance only temporarily delays the truth being exposed.”
The Code of Silence Awards are presented annually by the CAJ, the Centre for Free Expression at Toronto Metropolitan University (CFE), and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The awards intend to call public attention to government or publicly-funded agencies that work hard to hide information to which the public has a right under access to information legislation.
This award completes this year's Code of Silence program. In addition to the City of Prince George (municipal), Quebec’s criminal court system (provincial), the Canada Border Services Agency (federal), and the Toronto Police Service (law enforcement) were this year’s award winners.