(EDITORIAL…. This article is a footnote or digression to the feature article “Confidentiality vs Secrecy: A Slippery Slope“. However, it also can be read on its own.)
Here’s an example of what I would call downright peculiar (when describing SRD’s dealings with Area B, Cortes Island).
When Craig Peterson (private investigator hired by SRD) suddenly arrived on Cortes Island in the New Year, he was quite open and frank about his mission here. He said he was here “to investigate the charges against Director Anderson.” For many islanders, it was the first they’d heard about any allegations or charges against our Director.
Craig arrived on the island January 8th, 2019. Just the day before (January 7th), the Campbell River Mirror broke the story that a petition to litigate against Director Anderson had been filed on January 2nd (with an amendment Jan 3rd). So most people naturally interpreted Peterson’s extensive visit to our island (several days and at least 20 interviews) as a response (though a bizarre one) to the ludicrous charges made in that petition. Perhaps that was what we were supposed to think?
On January 31st, in a press release, SRD stated that “This petition was recently [emphasis mine] brought to the attention of the Strathcona Regional District (SRD) Board.” While this may have been technically and literally true, to me it seems necessarily and intentionally misleading.
Consider that the first SRD Board meeting in 2019 was January 9th.
Therefore, unless there was a breathless series of crash meetings between January 2nd and 7th — of which no record is available at their web site — they did not hire Craig Peterson in response to the petition (which didn’t legally exist until January 2nd). He arrived on Cortes before their first January meeting.
Also, Craig is a diligent and sincere fellow, so he put a heckuva lot of hours into his investigation; I can’t imagine the total price tag being less than medium five figures. Surely to let a contract of that cost, some kind of approval process was required; and from what I know of bureaucracies, it must have taken at least a couple of meetings to approve the expenditure and let the contract. The only December meeting was on the 6th. There was a closed session at this meeting at which this might have taken place; so that looks like the very latest date on which the contract could have been let.
So it seems only reasonable to assume that Craig was hired sometime in late November or the first week of December 2018. Which means that sometime in 2018 — at least a month, maybe more, before the petition ever became public knowledge — SRD must have been already well aware of the allegations made by the petitioners (or by some other persons: plaintiffs’ counsel Wenngatz later said that his clients had been “put up to this” by unspecified others). That is not what I would call “recently” from the standpoint of January 31st.
SRD chose at some point in 2018 to take seriously those flimsy allegations — and to waste public money on a pointless investigation of non-existent “corruption” rather than opening up the process to the public, holding a town meeting, permitting Director Anderson to answer the allegations, allowing named organisations and individuals to respond, and so on. SRD did not have the courtesy to communicate in any way with the 13 individuals and organisations who were insulted and defamed by these allegations along with Director Anderson. In fact SRD did not involve our community at all… until they dropped a private investigator in our midst.
Here’s one case where “community consultation” could potentially have been a very powerful, democratic, and constructive process (as opposed to a polite synonym for “delay tactic”) — and could have provided them with lots of useful fact-checking quickly and at little cost — yet SRD chose delay, secrecy and surprise over immediacy, transparency and open discussion. Further, whatever discussions they may have had with Director Anderson herself during that period (and surely there must have been some!) she was forbidden to talk about. So she was never permitted to defend herself from the defamation being prepared against her, and the community was given no warning of what was coming.
I should perhaps note here that most of the community was given no warning of what was coming. Bertha Jeffery, apparently the author and organizer of the petition to litigate against Anderson, claimed that she, at least, was in the know:
“She should have declared the income especially when asked by the SRD [emphasis mine] and did the honourable thing and returned the funds. And take down the Go Fund Me page. She refused to and that is what the lawsuit is about,” claims Jeffery.
She added, “Why did Noba hire a lawyer in late 2018? The law suit was filed in January. Obviously she knew she was in legal trouble.”
Jeffrey did not explain how she knew about the SRD’s alleged request that Anderson declare the GoFundMe campaign donations as personal earnings.
Noba Anderson was not allowed to speak about 2018 events at SRD related to the allegations made against her, so that implies those meetings and discussions were in camera. If they were in camera, then where did Ms Jeffery get that information: that SRD asked Anderson to declare her GoFundMe donations as income, and she declined to do so? If that information is untrue, then it looks like Ms Jeffery was trying to defame a political opponent by Making Stuff Up (which admittedly would be consistent with the “creative inaccuracy” of the petition). But if that information is true, then someone at SRD “released” in camera information to a member of the public. I never saw any announcement of that person’s censure, even though the information was visible to the public.
An apologist for SRD might say at this point that the wall of silence raised around the allegations later expressed as a petition was appropriate use of the in camera privilege (see companion article), in order to protect Director Anderson’s reputation while the matter was considered more carefully. However, I would counter that unleashing a private investigator on a small community, with no warning or context-setting, suggests that concern for Anderson’s reputation was not a priority.
Consider the great advantage that was handed to the person or persons making the flimsy allegations (I assume, based on Jeffery’s comments, that they were the same allegations as those in the petition): the accuser’s anonymity was protected (so no one could consider the source) [see note below]; SRD’s hiring of an investigator lent an illusory substance to the ludicrous allegations in the petition (even seemed to put some kind of official seal of approval on it), and SRD’s use of in camera prevented Anderson from speaking in her own defence.
It’s almost as if SRD had said to political opponents of Director Anderson, “We’ll hold her while you hit her.” I know I’m not the only person on Cortes who feels a baffled and helpless sense that we are witnessing something very unfair and inexplicable.
Whatever was going on at SRD in late 2018 that resulted in the hiring of Craig Peterson well in advance of the petition becoming public knowledge, it is deeply buried under the useful classification of in camera or “privileged” information.
NOTE: on whistleblowers and anonymity
The issue of anonymous “tip-offs” is not simple, and I’m certainly not advocating for a blanket policy of publicly naming informants. It’s obvious where organised crime is involved, for example, that people who go to the police with evidence need to be protected from immediate danger; if their names become known, they could be hurt or killed. On this principle, all police tip-offs are treated as strictly confidential. Similarly, the identity of journalists’ sources and whistleblowers is protected to shield them from harassment or harm by the people whose misdeeds they are uncovering. This is pretty obviously a Good Thing.
On the other hand, this anonymity also makes it very easy for people to make trouble for their personal or political enemies by anonymously making untrue allegations, while dodging any consequences to themselves. Whether a particular tip-off is whistleblowing (courageously revealing hidden malfeasance) or denunciation, whether it is “ratting out” (being a bad neighbour) or “stepping in” (being a good neighbour), can become very situational and subjective. Is it a clean-up campaign, or a witch hunt? Only patient, tedious fact-checking will answer the question.
Police departments usually look for patterns. When they find the same person repeatedly making accusations that don’t pan out when investigated, that person tends to lose credibility as a source. I have often felt that after N false accusations, a person should forfeit their anonymity and be outed as a public nuisance; but official policy disagrees. So meanly motivated defamers continue to enjoy the same protection as altruistic whistleblowers.
We can only hope that SRD, seeing that the allegations against Director Anderson in the petition of January 2019 turned out to be baseless (didn’t pan out), will like a competent police department “consider the source” and be less naively accepting of denunciations from that quarter in future. We can only hope that if this latest motion to censure is based on anonymous denunciation, it is at least from someone other than the same old crew. Unfortunately, given SRD’s enthusiastic use of in camera, hope is all we are allowed to have. I would much prefer my relationship with my local government to be “Trust, but verify.”
Photo credit: Car driving in Squirrel Cover – Roy L Hales