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HomeBusinessExclusive: Mayor “Gmail” Robertson disobeyed information commissioner for years

Exclusive: Mayor “Gmail” Robertson disobeyed information commissioner for years


Bob Mackin

In 2014, Mayor Gregor Robertson’s original chief of staff Mike Magee was found to have used his private email account to negotiate the lease of a city building to Vision Vancouver campaign supplier Hootsuite.

In 2016, Magee was caught mass-deleting his city hall email.

Now, as his mayoralty is finally ending, theBreaker can exclusively reveal that Robertson used a Gmail account to hide messages over a four-year span from freedom of information requesters.

Last fall, theBreaker found evidence that Robertson had been communicating with chief of staff Kevin Quinlan via Gmail. In January, city hall unsuccessfully asked the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to delay release of Robertson’s email beyond the 2018 election because it had to search more than 5,000 pages from Robertson’s account. Robertson opted to retire, instead of seek a fourth term.

More than 300 pages were finally released to theBreaker this summer, showing the earliest message from May 2014, six months before Robertson was re-elected to a third term and more than a year after B.C.’s information watchdog issued a stern warning for  politicians and bureaucrats to stop using private email services.

In the wake of a BC Liberal government email scandal, Elizabeth Denham told provincial and municipal officials that private email is not private when used to discuss public business. She also suggested public bodies prohibit elected and appointed officials from using private email, because the accounts are web-based and reside on servers in foreign countries.

“The use of personal email accounts does not relieve public bodies of their duty to comprehensively search for requested records and to produce them,” Denham wrote. “The use of personal email accounts for work purposes can give the perception that public body employees are seeking to evade the freedom of information process.”

The email obtained by theBreaker showed, among other things, that Robertson’s Tweets are ghostwritten.

Some examples, within the trove of “Gregor Mail.”

“Getting these out soon will help frame media. All these should be ready to go, no edits needed to fit,” Quinlan wrote March 18, 2016.

July 11, 2014: “Vancouver! It’s weekends like this that we changed patio hours to stay open later. Get out there and support our local biz! #patiolanterns” 

“Time to vote #yesfortransit. take your ballot…  Remind friends + family to vote #yesfortransit” Quinlan wrote on May 27, 2015, in the dying days of the failed plebiscite for TransLink expansion funding.

On Oct. 6, 2015: “I had doubts about #viaducts removal 4 years ago but city staff studied extensively. Connecting Georgia with Pacific=car access maintained.”

Neither Robertson nor Quinlan responded to interview requests.

Other highlights:

  • Various email about media coverage after the September 2015 firing of city manager Penny Ballem and the reaction of retired bureaucrats, like former chief engineer Peter Judd, who said Vision was pushing its agenda too hard;
  • December 2014 exchanges with perennial Robertson speechwriter Rob Cottingham, about edits to Robertson’s swearing-in speech;
  • March 2018 email about scheduling a meeting with Don Millar, the veteran campaign strategist that Robertson shared with Christy Clark;
  • Email from March 2016 from the owner of Tractor Foods, recounting his conversation with Robertson, who said he would “make some calls to push [a building permit] ahead”;
  • A March 2018 email in which Robertson expressed confusion to his aide, Shea O’Neil, about travel arrangements. “Is this doable? The cal says G travel but I’m forgetting what that is…”
  • Censored August 2017 email with ex-Vision city councillor Geoff Meggs, now Premier John Horgan’s chief of staff, and TransLink Mayors’ Council executive director Mike Buda;
  • A mysterious February 2016 email from Magee to Robertson, Quinlan at his private email address and aide Braeden Caley about Chip Wilson, the Lululemon founder and Vision donor who invited Robertson to a private Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at his Point Grey Road mansion in 2013. But the contents were censored for fear of revealing alleged advice and recommendations.
  • And a March 1 email to proclaim Jean Scott Magee Day in Vancouver, in honour of the 90th birthday the mother of ex-chief of staff Magee.

When Robertson was sworn-in for the first time in December 2008, he stated “I will not let you down on making city hall more open and accountable.”

A 2016 audit and compliance investigation by Denham found city hall routinely ignored FOI deadlines, deliberately deleted or hid records, went overboard with censorship, issued deceptive invoices, and showed ill-will toward reporters who filed FOI requests.

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