In March 2018, Kennedy Stewart was the local NDP Member of Parliament and Elizabeth May was the leader of the Green Party.
They stood together, arm-in-arm, outside the Kinder Morgan tank farm on Burnaby Mountain when Mounties arrested them for defying a court order against blocking the Trans Mountain Pipeline project.
Fast forward to November 2019, when May announced she would step-down from her party’s leadership after increasing the Green caucus in Ottawa from two to only three MPs in the federal election.
Stewart, who was elected Mayor of Vancouver in October 2018, charged taxpayers for a contractor to write a Twitter tribute to his former House of Commons colleague.
Stewart is under fire this week after the cash-strapped city’s sanitation budget was cut and $95,000 earmarked to hire another social media specialist for the 41-person city hall communications department. It is a story that Stewart called “weird” and a “red herring” when asked by reporters on May 28.
Stewart’s chief of staff, Neil Monckton, hired Gwen Hardy’s Elettra Communications on a nearly $32,000-a-year patronage contract for media relations and communications strategy in early January 2019. Hardy donated $1,200 to Stewart’s mayoralty campaign in late September 2018 and acted as his campaign communications director that fall.
On Nov. 4, 2019, Hardy sent two draft tweets to Alvin Singh, the Mayor’s Office’s communications director, late in the afternoon.
- “Elizabeth May’s tireless advocacy for the environment helped make #climatechange a key election issue. I’m proud to have stood beside her on key issues that affect the future of our planet. I’m glad that she will continue to be a strong voice for the environment in Ottawa.”
- “For the past 13 years, Elizabeth May has been our country’s top environmental advocate. I am proud to have stood beside her on issues that affect our city, country & planet. I wish you the best and know that you’ll remain a strong voice in Ottawa for the environment.”
“Let’s go with #1,” Singh wrote in reply.
On May 28, CTV News Vancouver reporter Jon Woodward asked Stewart about the status of the contract with Elettra Communications.
“They’re right here today, helping us while my staff person is off on a much-needed break. All of us have been working flat-out since the beginning of COVID-19,” Stewart said, referring to Singh.
“We have somebody, we have a company here to fill the gap while we’re trying to communicate and get the economy restarted.”
In January of this year, theBreaker.news sought copies of Elettra’s media monitoring and social media monitoring reports and copies of the copywriting and editing deliverables since October 1. But city hall said none of that existed.
Internal email from Singh to Stewart’s executive assistant, Lorraine Sebastian, said: “We do not retain copies of social media copy editing as they are posted directly to social media” and suggested the FOI applicant refer to Stewart’s published Tweets and Facebook posts.
“Media monitoring and social media monitoring reports are presented verbally and no records are maintained,” Singh wrote to Sebastian.
Correspondence between Hardy and the mayor’s office from last October and November shows evidence to the contrary.
Late in the evening of Nov. 3, 2019, Hardy gave Singh advice on the production of Stewart’s campaign-style, 54-second video about his first year in office. She suggested audio be cleaned up and Stewart’s voiceover be more urgent so that it sounded less-scripted. Hardy also suggested Premier John Horgan and Stewart’s wife, Jeanette Ashe, be included in the final cut.
“Wondering if we could add in more of the people who were filmed that day. Most of the people featured in this cut are still Caucasian,” Hardy wrote.
“Overall it’s really nice and there is a great mix of footage (I love the high five with the kid). Just want it to feel a bit more passionate, especially in the first 10 seconds.”
The next morning, Singh replied to say that Ashe and B.C. NDP Minister of State for Child Care Katrina Chen were being added.
“That will boost partnerships and add some more diversity,” Singh wrote. “Also looking at adding footage of my sister, so that should boost diversity a bit as well. Good call on music, they will see if they can boost energy off the top.”
Independent watchdog Dermod Travis of IntegrityBC said Stewart should have repaid taxpayers from his political fundraising account.
“His office budget, city funds are not for his personal benefit, they are not to assist him in seeking re-election, they are there to provide services to citizens, not services to campaign organizers, campaign advisors and campaign strategists,” Travis said. “He has an obligation to take a look at that video, to take a look at how he has used that video and to return the money to the taxpayers of Vancouver.”
Meanwhile, other documents obtained by theBreaker.news show that a Nanaimo company called Van City Studios billed the Mayor’s Office $4,532.60 on May 21, 2019 for web design and web development services.
Van City is also behind Stewart’s campaign fundraising website and worked for Stewart’s federal campaign when he was running in the 2015 election.
Other documents show that Coquitlam’s Alex Chan billed the Mayor’s Office $11,062.50 between January and June 2019.
Chan’s original contract, worth $1,000 for writing, research, community outreach, event coordination, media analysis and translation, ran Nov. 30-Dec. 9, 2018.
Stewart’s communications performance has come under extra scrutiny for various bloopers during the coronavirus pandemic state of emergency.
He errantly claimed two weeks ago that the city suffered a $27 billion loss to the economy. The next day, Singh said the actual estimate was a 27% decrease and a $2 billion decline, but not before he released a new version of the presentation that said the loss was only $2.
Stewart also released a bad news survey on city hall finances on Easter Sunday and told Woodward that the closed door meeting where the Vancouver Police budget was cut 1% was not really held in secret. The media and public are excluded from in camera meetings.
Stewart earned a Ph.D from the London School of Economics and is on leave from Simon Fraser University’s school of public policy.
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