On the role of journalism and public accountability

Lets talk about some news that hit the community last week.

In the pages of the Cranbrook Townsman and on our online website, there has been stories describing the efforts of a group that had been attempting to bring junior hockey to the area ever since a local WHL team relocated to Winnipeg.

Ever since the WHL announced the planned relocation of the Kootenay Ice at the end of January, Cranbrook citizens have been asking and pondering what the future will hold for Western Financial Place.

What’s happening going forward? Will hockey be here next year? What is the plan?

Simple questions, really. But for some reason, it has been incredibly difficult to get answers out of city hall.

It is fair to allow for a bit of municipal leeway immediately after the WHL made the relocation announcement on Jan. 29. After all, the news may have caught some off guard, while anyone wishing to fill the void and bring a different junior hockey franchise to the city likely needed gather a potential ownership group and get a business plan together.

That takes time, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that city hall might not have immediate answers for the public.

But fast forward five months, and here we are — heading into the off-season with no clear idea of what is happening next year and beyond.

Over that time period, the Townsman had repeatedly contacted city hall both via phone and through email, asking for someone — either municipal staff or the mayor — to provide an on-record and public update on the situation.

The updates could have come from an on-record interview from either an elected official or someone on staff. It could have been an in-person interview, a phone interview or a written submission sent by email. In fact, morse code, smoke signals or an interpretive dance routine would also have been acceptable.

Instead, in all cases, media requests asking for comment from an authority figure went either unreturned or were established as off-record, meaning that no formal update from official municipal authority figures could be provided to the public.

So it went.

Until last week.

A group that had been trying to bring a junior hockey franchise to Cranbrook went public last Tuesday, outlining their experience negotiating with the city over the last nine months. The group had been attempting to sublease an existing agreement with the Ice in order to bring a Jr. A franchise with the Alberta Junior Hockey League, but when that avenue fell through, attention shifted to Jr. B and the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League.

Needless to say, the group’s press release was not flattering for some personalities at city hall.

The Townsman made the editorial decision to publish the group’s media release in its entirety for transparency reasons as well as to air out the allegations from the ownership group, which was headed up by Colin Sinclair and Kevin Epp, among others.

A media request was sent out to city hall for comment on the allegations, which was returned with a two-paragraph statement that was added to both the online and print versions of the story.

Two days later, the city issued a written press release, with further details shedding light on their side of the story.

Lets be clear about the role of journalism.

It is not incumbent on news media to make a politician or a government organization look good or bad. It’s not incumbent on media to act as an in-house communications agency for a politician or their policy agenda. Inversely, media must also take care to avoid publishing material with malicious intent or deliberately publish libellous content.

However, it is incumbent on news media to ensure transparency and accountability from government institutions and elected politicians, and to do it as accurately, honestly and fairly as possible. Sometimes journalists have to ask hard questions, which means that politicians should know that they’re expected to be held accountable for their decisions, or lack thereof, on public policy in public forums.

Ultimately, journalism is about informing the public. Sometimes journalists do that well, sometimes they fail miserably.

But here, in this context, the public had the right to be updated on details surrounding Western Financial Place along with the status of the Kootenay Ice’s existing lease agreement with the city and the ongoing efforts that were being made to resolve the contract dispute.

There was ample opportunity for authority figures at city hall to reach out to the Cranbrook Townsman and add their voices to a public conversation over the last five months.

Instead, there was a glaring silence — a silence that was only broken after the Sinclair/Epp group went public.

According to the city’s 2019-2023 Five-Year Financial Plan, operating expenses at Western Financial Place are $3 million, with additional debt payments of $1.5 million. Projected revenues generated by the facility are just under $1 million.

Do the math.

Municipal recreational facilities are typically a money-loser anyway; they come with huge capital costs and ongoing annual maintenance and operational costs that sometimes isn’t recovered by the revenue it generates.

Western Financial Place is a prime example.

But the optics of that building sitting empty, combined with silence from city hall, does not make for a good look.

Mayor Lee Pratt lashed out at the Townsman’s coverage of the media release issued by Sinclair/Epp group during a regularly scheduled council meeting on Monday night.

Pratt’s anger centred on the facts alleged by the group, which he addressed at length.

However, his suggestion that the Townsman hadn’t reached out to city hall for comment is patently false.

The mayor should expect that journalists and reporters ask questions, sometimes uncomfortable ones. Coverage of the arena and hockey issues have been broken by Cranbrook media outlets, yet the mayor did not take advantage of opportunities to respond through local outlets, instead appearing on a Global BC television segment, an out-of-market media organization.

So, with that in mind, perhaps more transparency and a willingness to engage in public conversations carried on throughout local ink-stained pages, the online forums and the broadcast airwaves should be encouraged from the municipal hallways.

Especially ones that involve Cranbrook’s rich hockey legacy that lives through the Kootenay Ice, Cranbrook Colts and numerous NHL alumni who have put the Key City on the map.

*If any future media requests are made to city hall, mayor, councillors and staff can contact the Townsman at 250-426-5201 or through email at trevor.crawley@cranbrooktownsman.com, barry.coulter@cranbrooktownsman.com, paul.rodgers@cranbrooktownsman.com and jessica.dempsey@cranbrooktownsman.com. The entire four-person editorial department can also be reached through social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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