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.


Anonymous said...

"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."

There are some people wondering why the corporate media isn't trusted and is losing $$.

North Van's Grumps said...

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.

North Van's Grumps said...

As I was saying.....

Neither Translink Board nor Translink Police department responded to Adrian Dix's ticket violation fine leaked to the Press. The Privacy Commissioner was involved but it was deemed untraceable to find the crook within Translink.

Unknown said...

Thanks for pointing the spotlight where it belongs.

Anonymous said...

I think that you summed things up perfectly when you stated that Atwell decided to go on the offensive after his antics started to add up. Why would anyone immediately expect that the police leaked info about the 911 call when an angry boyfriend, a jilted lover and a dozen neighbours would be the top of any reasonable person's list.

Why would the police investigate Atwell's harassment claims when Atwell has offered no proof that he was ever stopped or pulled over for anything and changed his story between interviews on how many times he was stopped.

As a Saanich taxpayer my greater concern is that we have no budget, an absentee Mayor and a complete lack of communication between the Mayor and council, staff and the police.

Michael Geoghegan said...

As per usual some good analysis Paul, but keep in mind that if you had been a consistent critic of the CRD's billion dollar sewage project the knives would have been out for you as a candidate; and if you had the temerity to knock Frank Leonard off his throne you would have been summarily frog marched into the political wood chipper as well.

Getting rid of the CAO was a necessity, especially after the CAO said during the campaign he would not work with Richard Atwell. It was council that in refusing to meet with the Mayor elect who made this matter into a gong show and it was council who insisted on paying the CAO half a million in severance.

I believe the investigation by BC's privacy commissioner will start to make it clear just how deep the rot goes in Saanich.

tomm4 said...

The statements about the CAO need clarification. The former CAO told 34 managers on Nov. 12th that he could NOT work with Atwell and to vote for Leonard. So it is no wonder that the Mayor had a meeting the the CAO and asked him if he was interested in negotiating his departure. He also discussed it with several councillors and than tried to have a council meeting on Dec. 2nd and the council refused to meet than and by the time they could meet on Dec. 8th, apparently it was too late. Nobody forced the councillors to vote to fire the CAO, they could have voted against it but they did not. Furthermore, nobody is talking about the 16 million dollars wasted by Leonard and the previous council supporting the McLoughlin point boondoggle where CRD wasted 60 million dollars preparing the plan that is now defunct with nothing to show for it.

Anonymous said...

Murray did not tell 34 managers on November 12th that he would not work with Atwell and to vote for Leonard. Murray wasn't even at the meeting.

Atwell wasn't even sworn in as Mayor until December 1st. How could he possible have arranged a council meeting on the 2nd. That isn't enough notice to get everyone together.

You really need to get your facts together before you go spouting off.

paul said...

Michael and tomm4, I think you're illustrating the problem. I'm assuming neither of you were at the meeting where Murray allegedly made the comments, so it's more hearsay and gossip. Maybe credible, maybe not. (And if Murray did say that, it would have been wise, and less expensive, to wait before pushing him out.

Anonymous said...

Well if there were 34 managers at the meeting, surely there is at least one who could confirm--anonymously or otherwise--what Murray did or did not say. Seems to me they all have an interest in setting the record straight, since they are all being called witnesses to the version that says he rejected working for Atwell.

Anonymous said...

When even Ian Jessop suggested that Richard fire his political advisors, my guess is that Michael was at the top of the list.

Michael Geoghegan said...

I am quite content as was the case during the election campaign to let victory be my vindication. In the meantime even the TC is starting to turn its guns on the scumbaggery going on in Saanich

Anonymous said...

What I don't get is that if Atwell was concerned about the spyware then why did he not just ask to have it removed? He could have been back at work 5 weeks ago and we would be debating a budget and dealing with important issues.

I don't think that Richard has really thought this through. Even if the commissioner comes back as says the spyware needs to be turned off or removed it isn't really a big victory for anyone. The public is just going to say good now get back to work and make up for the time lost. I don't think that anyone will support using the issue to create further conflict with staff or other councilors.

Anonymous said...

Paul, the most disturbing aspect of what I have read, and that has mainly been on the internet version of the TC, is that the latter member of the Fourth Estate has allowed a libel-fest of gossip, hate, and innuendo to unfold in the comments section of a series of reports. Many, if not most of those comments have been derogatory and disparaging of Mayor Atwell, which would be fine...except that a large majority of them are the output of one or two, or possibly a few repeat offenders, often with a dozen or more repetitions of the same "opinion", under the same anonymous pseudonym appearing under a single article.

As you stated, where are the questions regarding four stops by the police? On that subject Katie Derosa reported that as "Mr. Atwell says" if to imply he's either psychotic or a liar. Maybe I'm wrong but I thought there would be records available of all such police activities from which it might be determined the actual case. In any case I've been giving the new mayor the benefit of the doubt, and the Privacy Commissioner's report should help shed some light on just what and who in particular he finds himself up against.

Raymond Graham

Sred said...

An instructive post. People to really know who they want to reach and why or else, they'll have no way to know what they're trying to achieve. People need to hear this and have it drilled in their brains..
Thanks for sharing this great article.
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Anonymous said...

So here we are, the commissioners report comes out and finds in favour of Mayor Atwell. Fired CAO was a LIAR and should not of been given the severance package he was given, but perhaps tossed out on his ear. I'm glad the newly elected Mayor is cleaning house, it's come to late, but in any case it's getting accomplished.

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