Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Saanich, Atwell, online noise and big issues being ignored

   Train wreck, gong show, circus - the clich├ęs 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.