Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Let the Secrecy Games continue

Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem, seen in a 2010 photograph, signed away the ability for Vancouverites to learn what went on behind closed-doors at VANOC. Ballem is also a director of the 2010 Winter Games organizing committee.

March 21, 2011 was the first anniversary of the end of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games festival.

On March 21, 2010, the Paralympics closed in Whistler, three weeks after the Olympics ended in Vancouver. But the game of information keepaway continues.

VANOC rapidly dismantled and is quickly fading into but a legal entity. But it cut a deal with the Canadian Olympic Committee and City of Vancouver to keep its most important secrets hidden from the eyes of the public for a decade-and-a-half!

Vancouver city manager Penny Ballem - one of two civic appointees to the VANOC board of directors and the partner of former civic-appointed director Marion Lay (a 1968 Olympic bronze medal swimmer and B.C. Sports Hall of Famer) - signed a Nov. 9, 2010 contract with VANOC and the COC regarding the transfer of 2010 Winter Games records and artifacts to the city archives. Here is the story.

The Archival Material Agreement set Sept. 30, 2010 as the start of a restricted period for certain key records. Records such as board of directors and committee meeting minutes, policies and resolutions, financial statements, legal correspondence, ledgers and journals must stay sealed from the curious public (which paid for the Games!) for 15 years.

For those keeping score at home, the restricted period ends in 2025.

While Quebec ponders a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, British Columbians still don't know the full cost for their Games. They won't get to see any of the evidence until 2025, unless a legal challenge is mounted to the Nov. 9, 2010 contract signed by public official Ballem. The contract may contravene the Freedom of Information Act. We shall see.

We shall also see what various city councillors think of this latest development. Especially since this contract was not debated or approved in an open, public council meeting. Especially since two of the Vision Vancouver members were banging the drum for transparency almost four years ago.

On May 15, 2007, Vision Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal proposed to the majority NPA city council to compel VANOC to open up and be accountable. Her Olympic Accountability motion, supported by fellow VV Coun. Raymond Louie, was voted down. It was originally tabled the day before VANOC's board met and rejected calls to open board meetings to the media.

Deal's motion said:

"Whereas It is absolutely crucial that the 2010 Olympic Games proceed in a transparent, accountable, and sustainable manner.
"Therefore be it resolved that the City of Vancouver direct its VANOC and 2010 Legacies Now Board Members to resolve that:
a) VANOC and 2010 Legacies Now be placed under the jurisdiction of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act;
b) VANOC and 2010 Legacies Now adhere to the requirements of the Financial Information Act;
c) VANOC and 2010 Legacies Now adhere to the provisions of the Document Disposal Act;
d) VANOC and 2010 Legacies Now adhere to the Financial Disclosure Act"

This is what Louie told me at the time:

“These are everyone’s Games we need to be able to support it wholly and the way we do that is to get good information so that people can see what is happening with their money, they can see what is happening in their city."

And we can't forget that Mayor Gregor Robertson promised transparency in his swearing-in speech of Dec. 8, 2008 - the day before he paid a visit to a closed-doors VANOC board meeting.

"Accountability must extend to every aspect of city hall... Over the next three years, we will rebuild that confidence, and ensure transparency, accountability and public debate at city hall.

"Politicians do not always live up to that responsibility, I know. But I also know that there were literally thousands of people voting last November for the very first time.

"My commitment to them, on behalf of every member of my team, is that I will not let you down on making city hall more open and accountable."

Read the contract that ensures VANOC secrecy until 2025 here:

Olympic Archival Material Agreement

The contract's secrecy provisions rely on a Freedom of Information Act loophole -- known as Section 3(1)(g): "Material placed in the archives of a public body by or for a person or agency other than a public body."

VANOC was officially a private body, though it was government-backed and overseen by a board of directors appointed by federal, provincial, municipal and First Nations governments. This was reinforced by the July 10, 2009 B.C. Supreme Court verdict against allowing women to ski jump at the Games.

Justice Lauri Ann Fenton found VANOC was not government-controlled, though it was "subject to the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms) when it carries out the activity of planning, organizing, financing, and staging the 2010 Games."

I sought help from the independent body that says it is in the business of "protecting privacy" and "promoting transparency." However, the British Columbia Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner didn't agree with my position that this contract should be overturned. Below is the rejection letter I received from Jim Burrows in the information commissioner's office. Mr. Burrows is not a lawyer. A reader informed me that Mr. Burrows was Victoria's city archivist before joining OIPC and he has a Masters of Archival Studies degree from the University of B.C.

Information Commissioner rejects bid to unseal Vancouver Archives' VANOC collection

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