Facts? Balance? Thoughtfulness?

Sadly, as the September 30, 2011 Global News Hour Final stories on the Abbotsford Heat and Abbotsford’s need for upgrading the city’s water system made clear, traditional broadcast media coverage all too often has little or nothing to do with facts, balance or thoughtfulness.

While the segment on the Heat did reference the $1.4 million subsidy paid directly to the Heat ownership for last year’s (2010/2011) season under the ten year revenue guarantee made by Abbotsford’s mayor and city council, it ignored or missed several important points.

Points such as: the indirect subsidies taxpayers pay for items such as the Heat banners adorning city lampposts or the advertising materials that adorn city facilities and buildings or the use of city staff to conduct business on behalf of the Heat.

Nor was there any mention of the yearly multi-million dollar operating subsidy to the Heat in the form of subsidizing the operations of the Sports Complex, the Heat’s home.

But the truly criminal aspect of Global’s story was the failure to address Abbotsford’s mayor and council signing an agreement to subsidize the Heat’s ownership that is illegal under the Community Charter that governs municipalities in BC.

No reference was made to Chilliwack’s mayor and council not entering into the same type of agreement to keep the Bruins (who moved to Victoria) in Chilliwack because as Chilliwack’s Mayor Sharon Gaetz stated “Under the province’s Community Charter, the city is not permitted to fund private business with taxpayers’ funds. This is deemed to be an assist to business and is strictly forbidden.”

Nor did Global say anything about Abbotsford’s mayor and council’s acknowledgement that the subsidy agreement with the Heat violates the Community Charter or their claims of having circumvented the law rather than obey it.

Global failed to question a mayor and council who, when a law forbids them from doing something they want to do, ignore/circumvent the law. Or ask just what else was circumvented or ignored behind the closed doors mayor and council prefer to operate from.

Later in the same broadcast Global’s story on Abbotsford’s need for a new water source left one wondering if some in Abbotsford were questioning the need to spend money on the City’s water infrastructure, while failing to address the true issue(s) of concern citizens have with Abbotsford’s mayor and council’s proposed upgrades to the water supply.

Contrary to the impression fostered by Global, nobody is disputing that Abbotsford needs to upgrade its water supply infrastructure. Indeed, many of those Mayor Peary labels as ‘naysayers’ – meaning they disagree with him – were calling on council to upgrade the water supply infrastructure before it built the ‘great white elephant’ AKA the Sports and Entertainment Complex.

There are major differences between the mayor and council’s intentions and the wishes/wants/best interests of the citizens of Abbotsford.

Council insists on using a P3 to upgrade the infrastructure, with Mayor Peary and council liking to talk about the $61 million grant they will get for going with a P3. Mayor Peary and council don’t like to talk about what prior ‘savings’ by mayor and council have cost the taxpayers (considerably more than the ‘savings’) or the fact that the increased costs associated with a P3 will be more (millions, tens of millions of dollars more) than the $61 million ‘savings’. Leaving Abbotsford taxpayers (once again) paying out of pocket for council chasing a mirage they call ‘savings’.

One significant cost the mayor and council like to overlook is that operating costs under a P3 would be at least a million dollars a year more expensive. Ironically this additional cost was included in the report commissioned by mayor and council to sell the project to the citizens of Abbotsford.

The mayor and council’s insistence on using a P3 ignores, as did the Global broadcast, the reality that around the world municipal governments are choosing not to use P3s on vital city resources such as water for a variety of good reasons, including keeping the control of vital resources such as water with the municipal governments.

Then there is the history and experience citizens have with the mayor and council’s promises as to what the total final cost of a project will be. The last time council told taxpayers the price was guaranteed by the contract with the builder (the last project council sold to the citizens) the cost of the project doubled. Costs that run over the cost promised by council by millions or tens of millions of dollars are simply normal operating procedure for mayor and council.

Keep in mind this is a mayor and council that built new Highway 1 interchanges where the roundabouts have signs telling drivers not to get in beside a truck because the design has trucks needing the entire roundabout to manoeuvre or where trucks tip over if they try to transit the roundabouts at or near the posted speed limits. A mayor and council that, with a short window for construction, a window that was open during the late fall/winter/early spring, thought hiring a firm that had never built a pool tank was a good idea.

Water is far too important a resource to go with a design build as the mayor and council want to. Yes, designing the system first in order to ensure it meets not just current but future needs, is robust enough for the years of service it will need to deliver and delivers the highest quality water requires far more of council than simply saying build me one of these – but council could always go back to meeting weekly to earn the salaries and perks they have voted themselves in recent years. More importantly, if the mayor and council are not willing to put in the time and effort required to ensure the needs and best interests of taxpayers are met – exactly why are they in office?

By its nature design build is a poor choice as the way to build a project, since the builder maximizes his profits by delivering the least he can, at the lowest cost he can, and meet the specifications of the contract. Design build is how you get roundabouts with signs warning cars not to enter beside trucks.

Abbotsford’s water infrastructure is too important to be built to the lowest standards and costs permitted by the contract.

Those are the major points of disagreement on upgrading the water infrastructure in Abbotsford. The disagreement is not whether we should upgrade, but about taxpayers wanting to ensure the upgrading is done correctly, managed well and has appropriate financial controls and frugality. As opposed to council’s take the easiest way out by going with a P3 and paying whatever the cost comes to.

All levels of government in Canada (municipal, provincial and federal) have a need to deal with a number of serious, complex issues at the same time they are constrained by the need to get their financial houses in order.

Unfortunately politics today are about politicians holding onto their power, perks and overly generous salaries by getting re-elected and has nothing to do with providing good governance and taking care of the people’s business.

Just as unfortunate is that traditional media is not about facts, balance or thoughtfulness. It is about the bottom line and best interests of whichever conglomerate the media in question is part of.

More unfortunate is that with the traditional media having become conglomerate owned and controlled, there is no media outlet for disseminating and discussing differing ideas, points of view and thoughts on what our priorities should be, the issues we need to address and how we should approach those priorities and issues. At least until such time as newer, open internet media such as The Tyee or Abbotsford Today are more well established and the public has an awareness of the new, emerging, information driven media world online.

I say more unfortunate because without information, knowledge and at least basic understanding you cannot make good choices and the functionality of democracy will continue to deteriorate.

With politicians focused on re-election and their own best interests and the public residing in wilful denial, media’s failure or refusal (or inability to recognize or understand?) to raise important issues, challenges and differing points of view in the public forum makes media partners with politicians and citizens clinging to wilful denial in our current sad state of affairs and the inauspiciousness of our future.

Media’s ‘news’ should, at the very least, resemble a broadcast containing facts, balance and thought, rather than having every appearance of being a promotional video for, in this case, Abbotsford’s mayor and council members seeking re-election in November.

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