LOCAL VIEWPOINT: Yelling ‘fake news’ can’t fix this fiasco
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A few weeks ago, I was reflecting on the surprising number of columnists across Canada who have recently decided to take a break from column-writing, or to leave journalism altogether. Many are tired or terrified of the abuse they are regularly subjected to. Others have simply lost the spark to continue voicing their opinions.
I wrote my first newspaper column sometime in the early 1980s, and I’ve written more than 1,000 columns since then. I’m proud of the awards I’ve won and been nominated for, but I’m even more proud of the fact that I have never had to issue a correction for a factual error in any of my columns. I have never issued an apology nor been sued for something I have written. Not many columnists can say that after writing so many opinion pieces.
What I am most proud of, however, is the wonderful relationships I have built with readers across Canada and the United States. They know I spend a tremendous amount of time doing research and making sure my facts are correct before I start writing. They know that when I tell readers something is the way it is, that’s the way it is. As the cool kids say, I “bring the receipts.”
In the column-writing business, your reputation for accuracy is everything. I have worked very hard for a long time to build that reputation, and that’s why I take allegations of bias and inaccuracy very seriously.
Having said all of that, you have likely read over the past few days that Mayor Jeff Fawcett and several city councillors have alleged that this newspaper misled Brandonites about the wastewater lift station issue. I have also seen emails that some councillors sent to some of their constituents, in which it was alleged that I had my facts wrong, that my numbers were incorrect, and that my concerns about the city approaching its debt limit was just a scare tactic to rile up taxpayers.
Let’s set the record straight. They said I got my facts wrong, but none of them have identified anything I wrote that was factually incorrect. In reality, if anybody has had an ongoing problem keeping their facts straight, it’s our mayor and city administration.
After I suggested last summer that the city should seek federal and provincial funding to help pay for the project, the city posted an “FAQ” document on its website (the document’s still there) that said “The southwest wastewater servicing project is not eligible for current grant programs.” That wasn’t true. The city now admits there are potential federal and provincial funding programs that could help to pay for the lift stations.
As to their suggestion that I was fear-mongering about the city’s debt load, city hall now admits we will be at 86 per cent of our debt limit after the $30-million loan is advanced — and that’s before they borrow millions more to make up the increased cost of the project. In other words, they told Brandonites in emails that I was exaggerating the severity of the debt problem, but their own memos show they knew I was telling the truth.
Regarding their claim that my numbers were wrong, every single number I used in my columns regarding the lift station issue came directly from documents on the city website and/or directly from city staff. Indeed, my columns often identified the specific documents that were the sources of the numbers. Instead of acknowledging my numbers were the city’s numbers, they alleged that I didn’t know what I was talking about or, worse still, that I was making up the numbers. They knew I wasn’t.
Finally, they claimed that I used scare tactics in order to anger taxpayers, but they now admit that my concerns about alternate funding sources and the city’s debt burden were entirely correct. They seem to think that telling Brandonites the truth is fear-mongering.
Based on contradictions in the city’s own documents, Brandonites have every reason to feel they were misled when the city claimed that the wastewater project was not eligible for various grant programs. And they have valid reasons to worry about the impact that so much borrowing will have on our property tax rates, our water and sewer rates, and on the city’s ability to address serious issues such as our massive infrastructure deficit.
The city issued a press release on Wednesday claiming that “City Council took a planned and principled approach to making this decision,” and quoted the mayor as saying “we have taken our time and due diligence to ensure we are getting this right.”
I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing before I ask you a few questions.
Did our mayor and council exercise “due diligence” when they approved the $30-million loan application last July without actually checking if there was federal-provincial funding available? Was it “a planned and principled approach” to deny that Brandon was eligible for such programs?
Were they engaging in “due diligence” when they failed to ask even the most basic questions about the project until the public hearing in January, and to only provide answers to those questions three days before this week’s council meeting — when it was too late for the public to say anything? Was that “a planned and principled approach”?
Brandonites aren’t dummies. They are well aware that the entire lift station loan fiasco has been a city hall gong show from the beginning. No amount of deflection, bogus cries of “fake news” nor self-congratulatory press releases can change that.