Sullivan FOI disclosure about Dobell raises questions for Peter Ladner

During his term as mayor, Sam Sullivan has often refused – allegedly on the advice of his lawyer — to disclose who he met with or what he achieved on eight taxpayer-funded trips to Ottawa and Victoria.

Now, thanks to a Freedom of Information disclosure that I requested and obtained from the City of Vancouver, we know what Sullivan achieved: very little, even though $250-an-hour lobbyist Ken Dobell accompanied him on one Ottawa trip.

(The request sought all records and briefing notes related to Sullivan’s trips to Ottawa and Victoria during his term. In response to public outcry, Sullivan did make limited media disclosures of some aspects of his trips in late 2006 and 2007.)

One key Ottawa visit, in December 2006, included councillor Suzanne Anton, city manager Judy Rogers and Dobell, a hired city lobbyist and former special advisor to the Premier.

Dobell’s presence was not disclosed by Sullivan in his news release at the time, perhaps because Dobell had been hired to lobby for the city. If Sullivan was in Ottawa, why bring along Dobell? Or vice versa?

As a result of his untendered city contracts, worth more than $300,000, Dobell later pleaded guilty to violations of provincial lobbying laws and narrowly avoided influence-peddling charges.

The FOI disclosure raises two questions for NPA mayoral hopeful Peter Ladner, who has said he will “have no hesitation in supporting the legacy Sam has left us.”

First, will Ladner state publicly that Sullivan was wrong to withhold details of his travel and will he pledge to report to council on all trips he makes if elected?

Second, does he agree that the untendered $300,000 contract for Dobell, in addition to a $250 an hour lobbying contract worth up to $150,000, was wrong? Will he pledge not to use paid lobbyists if elected? Will he, in fact, represent the city himself, as other city mayors do?

Sullivan’s Dec. 6, 2006, news release regarding the Ottawa trip did not disclose Dobell’s role in the delegation, which appears to have been designed to support efforts to obtain federal funding for a city “cultural precinct.”

Sullivan later justified Dobell’s lobbying contract by saying that he “made my lobbying efforts more successful by teaching me how to avoid certain topics.”

My FOI request, for all records related to any trips taken by Sullivan to Victoria or Ottawa between January 1, 2006, and June 1, 2008, produced a meager 86 pages of documents, including 11 pages that were duplicates. (Only a few names of participants in personal meetings were severed by city officials.)

The records show that:

• Sullivan spent more time seeking approval for his controversial drug substitution trial – a project endorsed by council but controlled by a non-profit society created by Sullivan – than he did seeking to protect critical research trials already under way at Insite, the supervised injection site, and the NAOMI trials, an important heroine addiction study.

• On his April 2006 trip to Ottawa, Sullivan spent as much time with fisheries minister Loyal Hearn (30 minutes) seeking to clear up boat congestion in False Creek as he did on the homelessness crisis with Diane Finley, minister responsible for Human Resources and Social Development;

• On the same trip he spent as much time (30 minutes) talking to Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor about more public access to Stanley Park’s Deadman Island as he did to Stephen Fletcher, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health, despite the threat to the future of Insite, Vancouver’s Supervised Injection Site.

• On a subsequent June 2006 trip to Ottawa – en route to a Montreal meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities — Sullivan sought federal funding for so-called Eco-structure from Infrastructure Minister Lawrence Cannon, urging cash for a grab bag of requests like all-weather playing fields and the downtown streetcar.

None of these initiatives bore fruit. The Conservatives ignored Sullivan’s drug plan, threw $10 million into various treatment initiatives and reduced Insite to short-term approvals.

In all these travels, the records disclose only a single 2006 meeting in Victoria with Housing Minister Rich Coleman, the minister who ultimately delivered the only investments in supported housing in the city achieved during Sullivan’s mandate. (There may have been Vancouver meetings with Coleman not covered by the FOI disclosure.)

Coleman left no doubt about his frustration with Vancouver’s approach to housing, saying in June 2007 that no more studies were needed, by Dobell or anyone else. “You’ve got to start moving,” Coleman says he told the city. “If you don’t start moving, the money has to go somewhere else.” When Coleman bought 10 Vancouver hotels in April 2007, Dobell was caught flat-footed.

That may explain why Sullivan’s appointment list for his November 2007 visit to Victoria shows “not available” next to Coleman’s name.

A final question for Ladner: does he agree that Sullivan’s handling of the housing file – supported by the NPA caucus every step of the way — was a costly disaster that has left provincial officials like Coleman fuming in frustration?