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Two New West councillors want to have a say on city news releases

New Westminster councillor: “I'm not a tourist here. I'm not just here to entertain folks.”
Should all council members see City of New Westminster press releases before they're sent out?

Two New West councillors want to be consulted before the City of New Westminster sends out any non-emergency related media releases.

At its July 8 meeting, council considered a motion from Coun. Paul Minhas related to “increasing council oversight and involvement in the issuance of official public statements.”

The motion stated the mayor is designated by council as the chief spokesperson who speaks on behalf of council on matters relating to city business, but it noted that not all council members are notified in advance or consulted about non-emergency communications issued by the mayor through the city’s communications department.

“It is important for me that I understand what is being released on my behalf,” Minhas said. “I think it's also good governance that all members of council get notified.”

In a 3-2 vote, council defeated Minhas's motion, which called on the mayor and communications staff to “conduct timely, adequate and thorough consultation with all council members before issuing any public statements, media advisories or media releases that are non-emergency related.

Coun. Ruby Campbell spoke against the motion, saying it could result in the need for additional communications staff and could potentially slow down staff’s work on non-emergency issues.

“I don't even know what problem the mover is trying to solve here,” she said. “So, I can't support this.”

Coun. Daniel Fontaine argued the communications department and the mayor, as chief spokesperson for the City of New Westminster, should ensure all council members are consulted about non-emergency communications. He said council members should not be reading about “the mayor's news releases” in the newspaper or on social media.

As “Exhibit A”, Fontaine took issue with a news release from the City of New Westminster in April in which the mayor expressed concern that the province had included New Westminster among cities needing to do more to build new housing.

“This was issued from the City of New Westminster, not the office of the mayor, which is very different,” he said. “He's fully permitted to do that on his own as the as the mayor through the office of the mayor.”

Fontaine said councillors shouldn’t have to read the mayor’s comments in a “post-game show” after a news release has been issued.

“To oppose this is, to me, sending a very strong message that we're putting more power into the office of the mayor, and that we as councillors are just here to watch the show, just read it on Facebook, read it online, read it on the city's website after it's been issued,” he said. “I'm not a tourist here. I'm not just here to entertain folks. I'm on the board of governors.”

Fontaine said he’d “be prepared to amend the motion to just say, please give me a copy at least before it goes out” but he did not put forward an amendment.

Following the meeting, the Record contacted the communications department regarding the city’s current practice for press releases.

Ashleigh Young, the city’s manager of communications, said the city has longstanding protocols relating to the development and issuing of media releases. She said the city's protocols follow government communications best practices.

“Communications staff work with staff project leads or subject matter experts to develop an initial draft and ensure information is accurate. Draft releases are sent to those quoted to provide quote approval prior to the release being issued,” she said. “It is important to note that the vast majority of media releases involve projects/initiatives/information that council has already been made aware of through the normal council reporting process.”

Young said she’s unaware of any municipality or local government that has introduced a requirement to its communications protocols that would require all council members to provide input before press releases are sent out.

“Last year, I reached out to my Lower Mainland municipal counterparts and confirmed that all cities follow a process similar to ours, and sharing a copy of a release with council in advance would be out of step with best practice,” she said.

📣 SOUND OFF: Do you think the City of New Westminster should get input from all council members before sending out all non-emergency news releases?  Send us a letter.