Mining more municipal minutiae for data diamonds in the rough

Transparency and the City of Vancouver are distant cousins, if that. Even the most sophisticated recreational genomic tests might not prove the relationship.

The city’s bland budget data conveys so little line-by-line detail as to make it simply a political branding document of no particular insight. And its culture of providing information is governed by impediment and discouragement. It was most recently graded an F by the province. That being said, if you have a spare few hours and can graze on the miserly grass, there are some symbolic gems in the spartan online documentation available. It is a journalist’s axiom that when you are barred from examining the substantive, it is instructive to examine the peripheral. Minutiae can reveal a culture.

To wit, a sampling of material in the city’s material:

1) Councillors are paid in the six figures, but Raymond Louie dinged taxpayers $825 last year for Christmas cards. He must have accumulated many more friends in the year, because in 2015 he spent $450 on them. These come from the “Education and Supplies” budget, which is a rather loose term for what is obviously just a slushy vanity pot. Louie must have more friends than Coun. Andrea Reimer, who spent $33.44 on them.

2) It is one thing to send out a news release and quite another to boost the public relations gesture by paying social media platforms to target people. Mayor Gregor Robertson used Facebook to augment his profile considerably in 2016. On 30 separate occasions, he spent between $3.34 and $443.19 to find an audience for his messages, spending a total of more than $2,041. Peanuts, I suppose, compared with the $3,000 to provide him “strategic coaching” or the more than $18,000 for a videographer to chronicle his exploits.

3) Depending on your sense of what ought to be a personal expense and what ought to flow to the taxpayer, nickels can sometimes feel like manhole covers. No bill seemed too small to file for the mayor’s meeting expenses: claims of $2.19, $2.22, $2.49 and $2.50 were among the $10,870.07 in expenses in 2016 to bring coffee, sandwiches and whatever into meetings for the mayor and his staff. Calculated across working days, it’s about $50 per.

4) Politicians are good for media – witness Donald Trump and the growth in the responsible outlets stateside. The mayor subscribes to the Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun and the Province (we think he gets his Business in Vancouver through his taxpayer-borne Greater Vancouver Board of Trade membership), and at full retail.

5) On more substantial matters: we have to hustle, it seems, in reaching our Greenest City Action Plan 2020 targets, but that didn’t stop the city from fudging some math to make us – or more likely, them – feel good about the results to date. We have decreased greenhouse gas emissions by 15% in 10 years, but have a 33% target by 2020 (let’s pick it up, people). The solid waste disposed to landfill and incinerator has been reduced by 23% since 2007 – what the city claims rather innumerately is “well on the way” to the 50% reduction by 2020. And water consumption has been reduced by 15% in the decade, even though our target is a 33% reduction by decade’s end. Should be quite the three years of action ahead.

6) Good-news-first, bad-news-buried plays an important role in the narrative, so page 13 of the city’s budget says Metro Vancouver will have the highest economic growth of Canadian municipalities, while page 23 notes Vancouver has the lowest median incomes of Canadian cities.

7) The city claims it has been keeping property tax increases within the realm of inflation in recent years. Um, this year’s increase: 3.9%. The city notes that inflation is predicted at 2%, but the additional amounts “reflect the pressures of a growing city.” A large part of the increase? “Public realm cleanliness,” which one would have thought was a basic tenet of civic leadership.

Maybe looking at buying one’s own Christmas cards, ending the billing for cups of coffee, stopping the silliness of Facebook ads, whacking the videographer and focusing on fixing the infrastructure and attracting higher-paying jobs would make for a better city.

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.