As the host towns, Whistler and Vancouver prepare to welcome the world in 2010, local media democracy is feeling the effects of increased censorship.
During a routine interview, local journalists were informed by Whistler Mayor, Ken Melamed that he would no longer be speaking to local press, unless they went through the RMOW's Communications Department first. Effective immediately, all media inquiries would be need to go through the municipality's communications department.
The new protocol upset some local reporters, since they had fostered a long-term relationship with the mayor, often calling him after-hours to ask him questions. The attack on media democracy actually began in January, when the town's administrator moved council meetings from Monday to Tuesday evening (giving reporters far less time to ask questions for the weekly Thursday publication).
There's a rumour swirling around town that council meetings will be cancelled all together six months before the Olympics (i.e. Oct 2009- March 2010).
Why should elected officials remain accountable to the general public and taxpayers, when there are hotdogs and stuffed animals to sell, and security cameras to install?
At the March 2 council meeting, Mayor Melamed reminded local media about the Resort Municipality of Whistler's 2005 Communications Plan. Although the plan hadn't been enforced until last week, it states that all councillors must consult with the management before responding to any media requests. This new protocol also applies to all municipal staff. No advisory, either verbal or written, had been issued to the media about the new policy.
Melamed added that the plan is in effect now because of the large volume of media calls he's been receiving in the one-year countdown to the Olympics. He told the public, "It's in the community's interest to have clear, consistent, factual communication that goes out. Really, all we're trying to do is manage our reputation."
Could it be that Whistler's elected officials "let too many cats out of VANOC's bag?" Have there been too many information leaks, especially when it came to questions about accountability about the controversial 2010 Celebrations Plaza, destroyed wetlands and rising Olympic-related costs? Whatever the reason, it's clear that the powers up believe it's time to minimize information leaks.
Most councillors didn't even know this policy existed -- not even the two incumbents. Free-thinking councillors like Eckhard Zeidler and Grant Lamont said they will continue to speak to the media and the public -- directly, and face the wrath of the Communications Department.
As a resident of Whistler, I am very concerned about the impediments being placed between our elected officials and the local media. It makes it increasingly difficult for average citizens to get the information they need to decide whether those in government, both hired and elected, are acting in their best interest.
I guess we can look forward to even more diluted news coming out of the RMOW and VANOC in the next 12 months. I gather Mayor Melamed is serious about the new policy, because he changed his cell phone number last week.
Got any questions? Please call the RMOW's Communications Department at 604-935-8104.
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