Shame the sponsors. That sums up the remedy advised by Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee member and Vancouver City Manager Penny Ballem on Wednesday Jan. 13, after she was briefed at City Hall on evidence of persecution of bloggers and other computer/internet users by the City of Vancouver.  Ballem (in photo above outside City Hall) encouraged the use of blogging and other forms of internet reporting to publicize allegations that computer and telecommunications companies sponsoring the Vancouver Olympics are being, in the words of a member of the City’s Carnegie Community Center briefing her, ”dishonest” and “hypocritical”.

While claiming to be committed to making computer and internet technologies easily accessible, corporate sponsors are accused of entering promotional partnerships with the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee [VANOC] while ignoring the record of the City of Vancouver — Vancouver City manager Judy Rogers (now fired) was an organizer with VANOC and her successor Penny Ballem is currently an organizer on VANOC — of employing harassment tactics to restrict the use of computers and internet for freedom of expression.

The City of Vancouver has in recent years been accused by residents of the low income Downtown Eastside of using Chinese government style tactics for repressing freedom of expression.  City “security” personnel have blocked access to Vancouver Public Library computer/internet technology as punishment for political free speech.  City staff held a ‘witch hunt’ for bloggers which involved spying and interrogation sessions by six City management and supervisory staff, ending in City security guards being instructed to block a newly elected member of the Carnegie Board of Directors from entering the building or attending Board meetings for his entire term of office. The turfed elected official, William Simpson, received a letter on City of Vancouver letterhead informing him that he was “barred” for operating a website which “features links” to a blog which criticized City management. Management was being criticized for locking doors to computer and educational facilities which they were funded to provide to Vancouver’s poor at Carnegie Centre. As recently as this month, City management made a decision to block the internet signal relied upon by a cluster of low income people who congregate with laptops on the third floor of Carnegie Centre, an area deserted in the evenings.

Against this backdrop, the telecommunications company, Bell, is sponsoring the Vancouver Olympics and promoting itself on the City of Vancouver website as, “providing consumers with solutions to all their communications needs, including …wireless communications, high-speed internet….”

“Blog away!”, Ballem called out as she walked the member to the door following the briefing. During the 25 minute meeting, Ballem, whose spouse is Olympic medalist Marion Lay, repeatedly told the member that she thought exposing corporate sponsors through internet journalists such as bloggers was an advisable strategy.  Bloggers had actually already begun exposing the relationship between Olympic sponsors, specifically Acer computers, and “blog burners” at the City of Vancouver. But the member believes Ballem was in violation of VANOC’s agreement with sponsors by instigating negative publicity about them.

Despite encouraging blogging about Olympic sponsors’ relationship with the City of Vancouver, which provides office space to the widely circulated Carnegie newsletter which has called bloggers names such as “slime” and “blog bozo”, Ballem avoided commenting on evidence that the City of Vancouver has been persecuting bloggers and computer/internet users.  Ballem used a transparent tactic, according to the member, to evade addressing evidence brought to her attention at the briefing, evidence which had previously been brought to her attention in writing. Ballem acted “stone deaf” when hearing evidence of fabrication of witnesses and interference with election results, and instead engaged the member on non-contentious issues.  She asked the member whether she thought Carnegie staff had “burn out”.  She asked for the member’s opinion on why Carnegie staff call security on members so often. “It’s a way of making you feel you’re input is valued and you’re being listened to,” explains the member, “when really you’re being ignored.”

City of Vancouver accused of entering names of dissidents into a “Security” database along with fabricated witnesses and other false information

Ballem’s “deaf act” was particularly disappointing to the member when it was applied to the issue of fabrication of witnesses for the City’s “security” computer database, as it was this alleged fraud that had motivated her to press for a meeting with Ballem. There is evidence that City management and staff are entering names of political dissidents – people who challenge the status quo at Carnegie Center when they voice concerns or get elected – accompanied by libelous information on it’s computerized “security” database. The member learned in 2008 that her name had been entered into this database as a “security” threat and has since been attempting to have it removed.

When the member obtained a copy of the security report, she learned that the Security Coordinator claimed to have “15 witnesses” who were willing to “corroborate” the Security Co-ordinator’s claim that she had acted in such a way as to warrant being written up in a security report and “barred” from computer facilities. Neither the City’s Security Co-ordinator at Carnegie, Skip Everall, or City management have been able to come up with names for these witnesses. “They don’t exist,” says the member.  She believes that the security report resulted from the fact that City management suspected her of talking to bloggers; her neighbor told her that City staff had interrogated him about whether she was talking to bloggers.

The member learned from the security report, a copy of which she obtained through Freedom of Information after City management withheld it from her, that a 2008 incident was the official reason she was considered a “security” threat.  It was an incident in which she had raised her voice at a man who supervised the computer sign-in sheet, telling him, as he hollered and flailed his arms at her, that she had taken his abuse for ten years and wasn’t taking it anymore. (This sign-in sheet supervisor/coffee seller had been the focus of complaints by members for a decade. A member mentioned the City’s ongoing failure to deal with this man’s abuse in his campaign literature when running in a 2006 Carnegie Board election, only to be “barred” from the building by City management on election day for distributing campaign literature.) Also used against the member in the security report was the fact that she had lodged a sexual harassment complaint against the same sign-in sheet supervisor 8 ½ years earlier.

A musician who was in the vicinity at the time of the 2008 incident pointed out that there were not 15, but “no more than 4 or 5 people” in the vicinity at the time. And he didn’t see any of them interviewed by the Security Coordinator, whom he could hear  talking about “barring” this woman. (The City’s ongoing disregard for confidentiality legislation in regard to low income people at the Carnegie Centre was another issue raised with Ballem, only to be ignored.) City management was asked to interview this witness — the only one with a name — but they evaded doing so. Carnegie’s Director did talk to him but, he says, “She just asked me about my music.”

These “security” reports are written about unsuspecting people hundreds of times a year.

The appeal process is almost as Orwellian as the security reports, according to the member.  You’re not allowed to appeal until after you’ve served your sentence, she says.  The appeal process involves “deferring” to the Security Coordinator so that you’re sentence is not extended further. Hers was extended further. She was told by Everall and security guard Ted Chiang that she was now barred from the entire building for two reasons: 1) she had asked the Security Coordinator for his surname so that she could appeal this decision to the City, and 2) she had stated that this process was “sexist”.

Ballem’s avoidance of issues such as the City’s alleged fabrication of evidence and interference with election results did not actually begin on the day of the briefing, says the member. “This had been going on for ten months.” The member first asked Ballem, through an advocate, in April 2008 to curb the corruption at Carnegie Centre. Twice Ballem instructed the member in writing to contact her office to arrange a meeting, once last summer and once last fall.  “Each time I called her office, her staff would tell me she couldn’t meet with me until the next month.” Twice the member was told that she would be emailed a list of meeting dates to choose from. She gave them her email address four times, twice to a woman with an East Indian accent whose name she didn’t get, and twice to Ballem’s assistant, Tiggy.  She didn’t receive the list until an advocate contacted Mayor Gregor Robertson’s office about the problem. At that point Tiggy said she did not did not have the correct email address.

Ballem gave standard promise to “talk to” Carnegie management 

When Ballem, who last year negotiated herself an annual salary of $300,000 from Vancouver taxpayers, met with the member, she told her that there would be no redress for past incidents stemming from the barring policy, and there was no point in “chasing government” for any.

Ballem then gave the member what has become a standard City line in relation to barring complaints: she would “talk to” Carnegie management about their barring policy.  Ballem would see if they couldn’t make Carnegie a more “welcoming” environment, although she acknowledged that this would be of little help to the member who said she had been largely driven out of Carnegie due to staff harassment.

Ballem offered to tweak the “process” involved in barring people.  She would try to ensure that staff actually speak to an individual before barring them. It is common for people to learn that they have been barred through somebody on the street. One man with terminal brain cancer who had not been to Carnegie in two years, learned while eating at a cafeteria several blocks away that he had just been barred from Carnegie Center. He confirmed that he had been barred because a staff member believed he had spoken to bloggers. The City had previously arranged for Vancouver Police to show up at his home to warn him about talking to bloggers.

Ballem said that she would attempt to ensure that the barring process was applied more equitably, that she was hearing from the member that it was not being applied “consistently”. The member assumes this was a reference to her account of a cafeteria cashier, Brent, walking up to her and loudly cursing in her face, an incident which she sees as part of ongoing staff retaliation against her for challenging the barring policy. Brent suffered no penalty for this conduct.

Now that Ballem had agreed to work on the barring “process”, the member suggested she work on changing the appeal process. Ballem appeared unwilling to do that. “I brought it up twice; the first time she just ignored me, and the second time, she shook her head and quickly moved on to something else.”

Ballem also said she would dig up a copy of a report written almost a decade ago containing recommendations from community members for changes to the barring process. Not one of those recommendations was ever implemented.

But none of this would be done for a month, Ballem said, as she was “busy” preparing for the Olympics.

“The Olympics will be over then,” the member pointed out calmly.  “I consider this an Olympic issue.”

It was then that Ballem put particular emphasis on the option of blogging about sponsors, and also advised contacting sponsors directly.  “Contact Bell,” she instructed the member.

Some of Ballem’s comments about Bell left the member non-plussed. When the member referred to Bell at the beginning of the meeting as a “sponsor”, Ballem responded that Bell was not a sponsor of the Olympics,  that Samsung and Panasonic were sponsors, but she didn’t believe Bell was. But the member who had earlier seen the Bell company logo on the City of Vancouver website, checked again later and confirmed that they were listed as a major sponsor, a “premier” national partner. “Bell gave VANOC $200 million and here’s a VANOC member who doesn’t know they exist”, says the member.  Towards the end of the meeting, shortly after instructing the member to “Contact Bell”, Ballem seemed to betray an awareness that Bell had already been contacted: she echoed the subject bar of a memo just sent to Bell when she asked the member if she believed that corporate sponsors should “suspend sponsorship of the Olympics”.  The member responded that her first preference would be that “sponsors work with the City to resolve my case.”

The night before the member met with Ballem, a friend on the Downtown Eastside told her, “Remember, ‘Penny Ballem is not your friend.’ ” It’s something Olympic sponsors might want to remember.

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