When the Best Damn Music Festival hits the stage at the Prince George Exhibition Grounds this weekend, it will be thanks, in part, to a $157,000 provincial grant through the BC Fairs, Festivals and Events Recovery Fund.
The event is hosted by Kyle Sampson Productions, owned by Prince George city councillor Kyle Sampson. In letters dated Sept. 22, 2021 and Sept. 28, 2021, Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall and former City of Prince George manager of economic development Melissa Barcellos wrote letters supporting Sampson’s application for the grant. Coun. Brian Skakun provided copies of the letters to the Citizen, which he obtained through a Freedom of Information request to the B.C. Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport. Sampson also received letters of support from Tourism Prince George, the Prince George Chamber of Commerce, the Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation and Northern Health.
“City administration and the mayor of Prince George wrote letters on behalf of his personal business. All of this is done on city letterhead,” Skakun said. “Senior administration signed off on this, we (city council) didn’t get told about it, and here we are nine months later. It’s all about transparency. Council should have been informed.”
Section 11 of the City of Prince George Council Code of Conduct says, “Members shall not use City public resources such as staff time, equipment, supplies or facilities, for private gain or personal purposes.”
In a notice of motion going before city council on Monday night, Skakun is asking council to direct the city administration to report back on the process the mayor and city administration use to decide which organizations will receive letters of support. A notice of motion is intended to give council notice that the motion will appear in a future city council meeting for debate.
“This report will include how the Mayor and City Admin decide what letters for grants and assistance come before council for a resolution and what letters are not required to come before Council,” Skakun’s notice of motion says. “As a result of an elected official getting grant letters of support from both the Mayor’s office and senior admin for their personal business without the knowledge of Council as a whole and the general public, I feel that in order to make this process not only fair, it needs to be fully transparent. It also will help with ensuring the Mayor’s office informs City Council about the meetings he or she has with regards to funding requests.”
In an email, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport said that all applications to the BC Fairs, Festivals and Events Recovery Fund, which provided one-time funding to help community events restart following the COVID-19 pandemic, were required to have letters of support.
“Letters of Support were a mandatory requirement of the recovery grant and could be provided by local destination marketing organizations, Municipalities, First Nations, and/or other community partners,” the spokesperson said. “Applications submitted by organizations were required to demonstrate local or regional support and community impact through both economic benefits and quality of life, as well as alignment with ministry and government priorities. Eligibility and funding allocations were determined through the review process by a panel of ministry staff.”
‘I’M EXTREMELY FRUSTRATED'
Skakun said the issue first came to his attention when he read an article in the Citizen, after the province announced the recipients of the BC Fairs, Festivals and Events Recovery Fund. A total of 13 Prince George groups received grants ranging from $250,000 to $7,401, totalling $882,795
Skakun said reached out via email to Hall and the rest of council asking if the city had written letters of support for the organizations, including Kyle Sampson Productions.
Skakun said Sampson confirmed that he had received the letters, and Hall informed Skakun he had written letters in support of many of the successful applications. However, Skakun said his requests for copies of the letters were ignored.
“I’m extremely frustrated,” he said. “(But) I’m not suggesting any wrongdoing.”
Skakun said in June he finally decided to request the letters through Freedom of Information requests to the City of Prince George and the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport. Skakun provided copies of the letters of support to the Citizen.
“We (city council) had absolutely no input on who gets letters of support and who doesn’t,” Skakun said. “This isn’t about any one individual, it’s about a process that is seriously flawed.”
Skakun said someone decided that Hall and Barcellos could write the letters, and he hopes that council supports his notice of motion to find out how those decisions are made.
‘I THINK THIS IS A POLITICAL THING’
Sampson said his request for letters of support was made as a local business owner and event promoter, not a city councillor.
Sampson said when he heard about the grants, he reached out to the mayor and city staff to ask if they were writing letters of support for local applications. He was told that the city had already written letters for several other applications, and a short time later received letters from the mayor and Barcellos.
Sampson said he received no money or special favor from the city, and in fact will be paying the City of Prince George for the rental of the exhibition grounds.
“I asked for the letter of support… as a local business owner, who employs local people.. and supports local economic activity,” Sampson said. “I would never have taken advantage of my position on council.”
Sampson said the Best Damn Music Festival was originally scheduled for 2021, but was shut down by changes in public health orders at the last minute. The event fit the criteria for the grant, Sampson said, and so he applied for a public grant for the first time in his life.
Even with the $157,000 grant, “this event will not be profitable,” Sampson said.
Despite that, instead of cancelling, he said is going forward with it for the community and because a portion of the proceeds are being donated to the Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation.
Being a city councillor shouldn’t mean his business is unable to pursue the same grant opportunities offered to other businesses and events in the community, he added.
“Councils are often filled up with business people. This is not a unique circumstance,” Sampson said. “I did my due diligence, I did everything above board.”
Sampson said when Skakun asked if he'd received letters of support, he responded within hours to confirm that, and Skakun never asked him for copies of the letters.
Sampson questioned the timing of the notice of motion, with the municipal election coming up on Oct. 15.
“I think this is a political thing.”
If the motion proposed by Skakun passes, city staff will bring back a report with more details about the decision-making process around writing letters of support, city communications manager Julie Rogers said in an email.
"Mayor Hall and the City’s economic development division provided letters of support to Kyle Sampson Productions as they do upon request from other Prince George organizations applying for grants from third-parties such as the Province," Rogers said. "Staff are in the process of determining which other organizations received a letter of support for this specific Provincial grant fund as it is not immediately available due to staff absences. It has been a matter of practice for the economic development division and the Mayor’s office to provide letters of support for such third-party grant applications to all Prince George organizations who request it and they do not go before Council."
The Council Code of Conduct is a council policy and is governed by city council, Rogers added. It is up to city council to decide if the policy was violated.
Hall and city manager Walter Babicz were not available for interviews as of Friday.