Andrew Macdonald had a question. Several.
The allnovascotia.com reporter was following up a recent HRM decision not to challenge a Supreme Court ruling that Polycorp Properties could develop a $15-million, 66-unit condo project on Brunswick Street.
The city had refused to issue a development permit for the project because it claimed a never-officially-registered 1970 document reserved that land as playground.
The futile legal battle cost taxpayers $150,000 in court costs, not to mention high-priced lawyers to fight it.
How much did those lawyers bill the city, Macdonald wanted to know? Did HRM’s decision not to appeal reflect a “weak” city case? Is the city concerned taxpayers could now be on the hook for even more since Polycorp is seeking damages for losses caused by the delays.
In the B.B.—Before Butts—era, Macdonald would have simply picked up the phone, called the bureaucrat in charge and gotten his answers.
But in May, HRM’s new city manager, Richard Butts, issued a gag order—er, new “communications approach” for senior staff, effectively ordering them to refer all media inquiries to Communications Director Shaune MacKinlay “to ensure media responses are well-coordinated and aligned across the organization.”
Let’s see. Every day, reporters—often more than one—from Metro, the Herald, CBC radio and TV, CTV, Global, 95.7 News Radio, allnovascotia.com, The Coast, Frank, occasionally the Globe and Mail, OpenFile, campus papers, local magazines and websites seek answers to HRM questions on deadline.
How many HRM communications staffers are solely responsible to respond to those inquiries? None.
On Wednesday just before 1 p.m., Macdonald emailed MacKinlay. MacKinlay was in a meeting. She said she’d look into it, but couldn’t guarantee when. She didn’t get back to him in time for his deadline.
The next day, MacDonald emailed MacKinlay, Butts and Mayor Peter Kelly, asking the city to go back to its old way of dealing with media inquiries, which, he said, “worked fine… was more accommodating to journalist deadlines and, truthfully, provided better insight as we got to talk to the expert at hand.”
Macdonald did eventually get belated answers to his initial questions, but he’s still waiting for replies from Kelly and Butts.
So are we.
HRM—you may not be surprised to learn—got the worst grade in the country in a recent freedom of information audit conducted for Newspapers Canada.