Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Saanich, Atwell, online noise and big issues being ignored

   Train wreck, gong show, circus - the clichés used to describe the municipal meltdown in Saanich, Victoria´s bigger suburban neighbour, have been piling up. Newly elected Mayor Richard Atwell is being likened to Toronto´s Rob Ford, always a bad sign.
   But all that noise is drowning out the fact that important issues are being ignored in a time of trial by Twitter and quick news hits. If this is local politics in the new age of social media, I don’t like it.
   Two narratives have emerged after Atwell´s first 50 days.
   In one, he is an incompetent, untrustworthy, weirdo loner. (Do you have Asperger’s, a TV reporter asked Atwell.)
   In the other narrative, Atwell is the people’s champion, battling media, business and political elites determined to crush him by any means.
   We’ve always liked simple stories pitting good – our side – against evil. And gossip, wild speculation and blindness to unwelcome facts aren’t new.
   But we once recognized reality is more complex, with the help of news media that provided information framing a rational discussion of issues.
   So far, that hasn’t happened this time. Social media and online forums have been giant megaphones for the gossip and wild accusations by Atwell’s supporters and detractors, reinforcing the simplistic narratives. 
   And traditional news media haven’t cut through the clamour in a way that focuses attention on potentially serious allegations about police abuse of power and computer spying.
   Atwell is an outsider who toppled 18-year Saanich mayor Frank Leonard in November. He has no political experience, which his supporters consider a plus. He did help lead the campaign against the Capital Regional District’s sewage treatment plan, a movement built on anti-establishment fervour.
   He got off to a wretched start as mayor, showing up at the municipal offices before he was sworn in to axe Saanich’s chief administrative officer Paul Murray. He hadn’t discussed his plan with council, which is actually responsible for hiring and firing the top manager. Atwell’s action cost Saanich taxpayers about $480,000 in severance, damaged relations with councillors and created the early impression he was clueless.
   Then the weirdness escalated. On. Jan. 6, the Times Colonist, citing unnamed sources, reported police had responded to a 911 call at the home of a woman who had worked on Atwell’s campaign. There had been a dispute between Atwell and the woman’s fiance, the newspaper reported.
   Atwell didn’t respond to Times Colonist calls before the story broke, and avoided the media for another for 24 hours. When he finally appeared, he said it was a small misunderstanding and he wasn’t having an affair with the woman. (He’s married.) 
   Five days later, Atwell called a news conference. He admitted he lied when he claimed he wasn’t having an affair.
   And he went on the offensive, saying he had asked B.C.'s Police Complaint Commissioner to investigate how information about the 911 call became public. 
   Atwell also said that since the mayoral campaign began he had been stopped four times by the regional road safety unit and been given roadside breathalyzer tests twice, blowing 0.0 each time. (One stop was clearly legitimate; he had an expired insurance sticker.)
   Atwell said he wanted the head of the unit to investigate whether he had been singled out by police. (The Saanich Police Department has four officers on the 15-officer traffic regional unit. The police union had backed Leonard for mayor.)
   And Atwell revealed his lawyer had asked Saanich police to investigate the legality of spyware placed on his computer at municipal hall, which he learned about Dec. 11.
   Supporters and detractors flooded the online forums and the news media jumped on the story.
   But, mostly, the two existing narratives prevailed. There was little focus on the real, big issues raised or the holes in the official response.
   Take the surveillance software installed on the Atwell’s work computer, a product capable of capturing all the keystrokes and content as well as sites visited. Saanich police investigated and hired lawyer and former B.C. police complaints commissioner Dirk Ryneveld for advice. (Why an outside lawyer was needed hasn’t been explained.)
Police reported to council, behind closed doors, that no Criminal Code offence had been committed.      Council released a statement on the investigation a day later, on Jan. 11. But given the seriousness of the allegation, it was incomplete and opaque, raising as many questions as it answered.
   The spyware was placed on “a number of District of Saanich computers,” council said, but it didn’t say how many. The program was the result of recommendations from an external audit of computer systems done in May, council said. 
   But the surveillance program wasn’t purchased until ¨late November,¨  after Atwell won the election.
   If Saanich staff had identified a security problem, how come it took six months to act? Why was the mayor’s computer among a small number targeted? What was the written policy around meaningful disclosure of the surveillance to computer users? 
   While the police decision that no Criminal Code charges were warranted was probably correct, B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham noted covert computer monitoring - “tracking Internet use, logging keystrokes, or taking screen captures at set intervals as part of ongoing monitoring” - had so far always been found to be contrary to provincial privacy protection.
   Those serious issues were mostly lost in the noise, although this week Denham announced her office would launch an investigation into the use of the surveillance software. (The investigation will also provide a useful assessment of the competence of the new Saanich council, which reviewed the surveillance program and found no concerns.)
   Allegations about police activities have also received too little attention. 
   The Saanich police board met behind closed doors and said Atwell should not take up his role as chair. They wrote Justice Minister Suzanne Anton asking for an investigation, though into what was unclear. (She said no.)
   But neither the board nor the police department has responded to Atwell’s concerns that someone in the department leaked the information about the 911 call. That’s a serious issue of public interest, and the department has the ability to launch an investigation and report publicly. It apparently hasn’t, and the police board has shown no interest.
    And I haven’t seen any news stories following up on the allegation that Atwell was targeted by traffic police. Four stops in a few months seems unusual. The decision by officers to administer two roadside breathalyzer tests which both showed Atwell had consumed no alcohol also demands an explanation.
    At the least, it would be useful to have the media report a response to the allegations. Have senior officers looked at the files and checked the officers’ reasons for deciding Atwell might be impaired? Have they checked to determine if anyone pulled his vehicle files during the campaign? 
   So far, Atwell has been a blundering mayor. That’s just the way democracy works sometimes. Maybe he will get better at the job, maybe he won’t.
   But something has gone really wrong with our collective ability to respond sensibly to his travails and some very big issues that have been raised along the way.
   And that’s much more worrying.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Saanich council fumbles the computer surveillance issue

Saanich council is doing a lousy job of dealing with the suburb´s bizarre political problems.
Mayor Richard Atwell complained to Saanich police on Dec. 15 that spyware had been installed on his office computer without his knowledge.
Police investigated and, apparently, decided to hire former B.C. police complaints commissioner Dirk Ryneveld for advice. They concluded no Criminal Code offence had been committed, and reported to council behind closed doors on Monday. Council released a statement Tuesday.
But it was a lame effort. Weasel words and lack of clarity are warning signs in this kind of situation.
The statement said security software had been installed on ¨a number of District of Saanich computers, including the office computer of Mayor Atwell.¨
How many computers? Three, 10, 30? Was the software placed on any councillors´ computers, or just the mayor´s? A complete report would have answered those questions.
The spyware was placed on the computers in ¨late November,¨  the statement said, based on recommendations  in a May 2014 computer system audit.
The action was after the election. An explanation of why it took six months to deal with a computer security problem, an issue that should be taken seriously, would be welcome. So would evidence – a purchase order for the software from August, for example – to show this wasn´t launched after Atwell won. Given his allegations, answering all those questions fully should have been important.
The decision that no Criminal Code charges were warranted is correct. The law lets employers spy on private communications  to protect a computer system.
But Atwell might have had better luck with a complaint to the B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner.  B.C. privacy regulations allow overt computer monitoring by employers as a matter of course if employees are told, before the process begins, what is allowed and what isn´t and how they will be monitored. The surveillance is broad – things like websites visited.
The rules are much stricter around covert monitoring, commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a release this week.  “This type of monitoring could take the form of tracking Internet use, logging keystrokes, or taking screen captures at set intervals as part of ongoing monitoring.¨
It´s only allowed when there is a specific investigation into wrongdoing and only after all less invasive investigative measures have been exhausted, she notes.
So far, the privacy office has found all cases of covert monitoring unjustified. None have been found to be within the province´s privacy law.
Which raises two issues.
First, Coun. Judy Brownoff said Saanich has a well-known policy that tells employees their computers may be monitored. Council should have produced that policy and shown that it was shared with Atwell and other people whose computers were being monitored under the new program.
Second, it´s unclear what sort of monitoring Saanich is doing under the initiative launched in November. Given the controversy, and the capabilities of the software apparently being used, council should have determined and reported on its security activities, especially in reference to the issue of covert versus overt surveillance as defined by the privacy commissioner.
I´m not choosing sides. Atwell´s tenure has been a mess, starting with the destructive, arrogant and expensive effort to force out the city manager.
But that simply makes it all the more important that council do its job well. It didn´t this week.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Letter from Managua: A canal dividing a country

The proposal to build a trans-oceanic canal across Nicaragua seems mostly like the scenario for a slightly implausible summer blockbuster movie.
The movie would have it all. Powerful business forces, environmental risks, social upheaval and conflict and even global intrigue - Chinese interests are behind the project. And lots and lots of mystery. I can see Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie racing from Caribbean villages in Nicaragua to skyscrapers in Hong Kong in a race to uncover the truth.
The canal would be about 280 kms long, more than twice as long as the Panama canal. A short 24-km section would let ships travel through locks from the Pacific to Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca, its indigineous name). Giant container ships would travel about 70 kms across the lake, the largest in Central America, and then through a canal across some 180 kms to the Caribbean. 
Der Spiegel
Details are sketchy, but the goal is to allow ships capable of carrying 18,000 containers, about 50 per cent lager than the ones the new locks being built in Panama can handle. (For a fascinating look at how shipping containers transformed the world, I hihgly recommend Marc Levinson’s The Box.)
All that comes with an entirely unsupported price tag of $50 billion, about three times the combined cost of B.C.’s Site C dam and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project. And while Site C represents about 3.7 per cent of British Columbia’s GDP, the new canal would represents about 250 per cent of Nicaragua’s GDP. 
Sounds like a crazy project for a poor country. (Nicaragua was ranked 132 in the 2014 UN Human Development Index report, ahead of only Haiti in the Americas.) 
The canal project is being backed by Wang Jing, China’s 12th richest man with a fortune of some $6.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine. President Daniel Ortega, one-time revolutionary, supports the project and his son Laureano is the link with the government. The largest business group backs the megaproject.
But there is fierce opposition, based in part on the secrecy and lack of real planning. Last week about 3,500 Nicaraguans marched in the streets of Managua. They arrived despite efforts by government transportation officials and the police to keep groups from travelling to the capital. The military has moved into the countryside where canal opposition has been strongest.
There are four big concerns about the project.
First, a lot of people – perhaps 30,000 - are going to get pushed off their land to make way for the canal. That´s no big deal in China, where some 1.5 million people were relocated to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. But it will be in Nicaragua, where land can mean survival.
Second, there have been no real studies of the environmental impact. The project would mean dredging rivers and blasting a 70-km channel across Lake Nicaragua, a beautiful, largely unspoiled treasure. Thousands of hectares would be cleared, new lakes built to hold water to operate the giant locks and both coasts would be affected. The country would literally be cut in half, with plans for one bridge at this point.
Third, there have been no social or economic impact studies, or publicly released information on the business case for the canal. 
Shipping experts are skeptical. The canal would knock about 1,300 kms off the sea route from China to the East Coast of the U.S., but the canal would take longer to transit then Panama. 
The government is claiming the canal will create 50,000 construction jobs and 200,000 permanent jobs, but it hasn’t set out the value of the concessions granted to Wang´s company, which include the right to operate two ports, an airport, tax-free industrial zones, a railway and pipeline and other potentially profitable businesses. One fear is that the canal will never be built while Wang will cash in on the other opportunities.
And fourth, there is wide speculation that the canal is less a commercial venture and more an effort to extend Chinese government influence in the region. Wang hasn’t revealed where the $50 billion will come from, and investments from Chinese state-controlled companies are considered likely. For analysts who doubt the plans commercial rationale, the geopolitical strategy makes sense.
Work is scheduled to start on Monday, with the first projects a new dock on the Pacific coast and roads to receive the heavy equipment and supplies needed for the project. 
The idea for a canal has been around for a long time. In the to-be-read section of my Kobo is the 1852 book ¨Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments, and the Proposed Interoceanic Canal.¨ U.S. tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt was awarded a canal concession in 1849. He never built it, but made money off a train and stagecoach route.
It´s always been controversial. And it still is.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Letter from Managua: Missing the strange

I can see why people wind up travelling to more and more exotic places. After a month in Managua, I recognize a faint disappointment at the lack of full-on culture shock.

The first month in Copan Ruinas, less than three years ago, was a thrill ride of new sensations. The grungy home stay, the cobbled streets, the half-starved dogs and sheer newness of life in the world’s most dangerous country. We would walk along, under the scorching sun, and say ‘Geez, we’re living in Honduras’ in a slightly bewildered way.
The arrival in Nicaragua was wildly uneventful by comparison. Sure, there’s a buzz landing at night in any big Central America city, and it was strange to have the airport staff all in surgical masks and a thermal camera employed to see if we had fevers. (Ebola was their worry, with good reason. If it ever got a foothold in Central America, things would get desperate fast.)
But we quickly found a place to live, having learned the only way was to walk the streets looking for signs and asking anyone you saw about places for rent. Within the first hour or so, a helpful guy guided us to our eventual home. We found the stores, stocked the casa and started work with our Cuso International partner organizations.
Part of the difference is that Copan is a town of about 8,000 and Managua is a city of some 2.5 million. We were plunged into a whole new world in Copan, where a 20-minute walk took you into some dead-poor villages. In Managua, we’re in the Barrio Bolonia, a pretty nice neighbourhood. There’s a PriceSmart a couple of blocks away, a Costco clone.
And part of the difference is that Honduras is a wilder place. Nicaragua actually ranks lower on the UN Human Development Index, ranked 132 out of 187 countries, with Honduras in 129th. GDP per capita is about $4,300, compared with Canada’s $42,000. 
But the taxi drivers in Managua don’t pay weekly extortion fees to the street gangs. The murder rate is around 15 per 100,000, compared with the ridiculous rate of around 85 per 100,000 in Honduras. That meant about 18 murders a day, most never investigated.
Still, Managua is hardly Victoria. I walk a little over three blocks to work, and say hello to half-a-dozen security guards. Horse carts trot through the barrio and there are no street signs, or even names. The cathedral on the main square is a beautiful ruin, shattered in the 1972 earthquake and never rebuilt. A mysterious Chinese billionaire plans to start work next month on a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with the Ortega’s government support and without much of anything in the way of consultation or economic or environmental studies. We’ve been to one giant, crazy market; an even bigger one is considered highly risky to even venture into with any possessions of value. 
It’s nice to wander, as we did Saturday, down a main boulevard where the government is setting up some 20 giant displays dedicated to the Virgin Mary, without constantly looking over my shoulder. I’m keenly looking forward to Dec. 7, when at 6 p.m. we all pour into the streets, set off fireworks and sing and chant to give thanks for her birth. 
Things are still plenty different here. But we’re different too. While I like being better at settling in, I miss the shock of discovery that was so vivid when we landed in Honduras. Or I think I do. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Letter from Managua: Streets with no names

I got used to the lack of addresses in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. We told people we lived in the Casa de Jorge Ramos on Calle Independencia. They usually knew where I meant.
But Managua has upped the game, shunning not only addresses but street names. Beyond a handful of main highways, streets have no names. Finding your way around a city of 2.4 million people without any street names or addresses is like some kind of strange experiment in ingenuity.
Alexis Arguello statue
- just walk west
Cuso International’s business cards and letterhead do not have an address for the Managua office, or even a street name. There isn’t one.
Instead, the business card says ‘From the Optica Nicaraguense, go up one block and then one-and-a-half blocks south.’ It’s in Barrio Bolonia, the card says, which narrows the search. And ‘up’ means east, because that’s where the sun comes up.
That’s what substitutes for addresses. Every business, or home, is located in relation to some supposedly well-known waypoint. 
I’m working with APEN, the Associación de Productores y Exportadores de Nicaragua. Its address is ‘From the Iglesia San Francisco, 20 varas up.’ (A vara is a largely obsolete Spanish measurement just shy of a yard.)
It can get worse. Some of the addresses refer to reference points that no longer exist. (‘From where the big tree used to be.’)
And standing at a corner in a strange city, without a compass, the whole idea of deciding which way is north is difficult.
Managuans don’t seem to find this strange. But aside from the confusion of people like me, there has to be a significant economic cost. How many deliveries have gone wrong because a driver never could figure out where a store or home was? How many new businesses have failed because customers decided not to take a chance on going three blocks east from the Canal 2 building, one-half block north and then 40 varas west? How weirdly has development been skewed by a desire to locate near a prominent waypoint?
But Cuso volunteers soon learn a basic lesson. Strange is the new normal.
We found a place to live for the next four months, a bedroom with private  bathroom in a nice house in a good neighbourhood, with shared living space and kitchen. It should serve nicely.
If you want to visit, come on down. Look for us 40 varas east of the chess academy in Barrio Bolonia.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Come to the Bard and Banker Thursday for my book launch

It’s been a long time between posts.
Lots of good reasons. We’ve had two weddings in October, two daughters marrying two great guys. They’ve been fun and inspiring, and a chance to re-connect with people who matter. 
I’ve been doing interesting work for The Tyee, BC Business and Douglas Magazine. 
We - Jody Paterson and I - have been looking ahead to new Cuso International placements in Nicaragua. 
And there has been ‘the book.’ The real title is Dead Ends: BC Crime Stories, but for a long time, as I laboured away, it was just ‘the book.’
It’s my first, published by the team at the University of Regina Press. I researched and wrote about 40 B.C. crimes from the 1860s to today. I knew the stories would be great, and the characters fascinating. But I didn’t anticipate that the crimes would reveal so much about us and our history. 
The book was released Sept. 29, and I’ve been trying to figure out, as a first-time author, how to get people to read it. (Munro’s Books listed it among more than 1,200 new releases in September, which sets out the challenge rather starkly.)
On Thursday, at the Bard and Banker pub in Victoria, there’s an official launch party. It will be low key. We have the comfy Sam McGee room. I’ll talk a little bit about writing the book. Copies will be on sale for $20, with $8 going to Cuso International and Casita Copan, an amazing project to support homeless kids and struggling families in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, where we spent more than two years. But it doesn’t matter if anyone buys books. There’s a piano, if you want to play.
Mostly, I hope people will show up and talk to each other. I have almost 400 Facebook friends. Jody has 1,805. I don’t know who they are. But it would be interesting if we all got together for a few hours, especially as we head to Managua in less than two weeks.
We have the room from 6:30 pm to 9. Come on down.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Public might blame both sides, but holds government responsible for inaction on strike

Both sides are losing in the teachers’ dispute. The spin and counter-spin, PR gestures and ad campaigns aren’t moving the parties any closer to a deal.
More and more people - as an informal sampling by The Tyee suggested - are sick of both the BCTF and the government.
Which means the government is going to have to step in and end the strike.
The chances of a negotiated settlement were always tiny. The posturing by both sides and unwillingness or inability even to bargain the key issues has reduced them to about zero.
Each side blames the other. 
But - and it is an enormous but - only one side has an actual responsibility to see that kids get an education, and the ability to make that happen.
All the Twitter ads and press conferences blaming the BCTF don’t change that. Governments are supposed to make sure citizens get the services they need (and are paying for).
The BCTF’s foolish two-week June strike was a nuisance (and self-destructive). The loss of the first week of classes was tolerated by many people.
But the government’s apparent willingness to stand by indefinitely while some 580,000 students are deprived of an education is going to generate more and more public anger. Especially as there is no sign the hard line is going to produce a resolution. 
Each day the government fails to act now adds to the impression that it doesn’t really consider education a priority, let alone an essential service, as Premier Christy Clark once argued.
There are several options. A legislated end to the strike combined with an imposed settlement or a report from an industrial inquiry commissioner, for example, or an appeal to the Labour Relations Board for a ruling that education is an essential service.
Leaving students and parents adrift during a PR war with teachers - will increasingly be impossible.
And the government’s willingness to do nothing despite the damage to students  will increasingly carry a political cost.