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OPINION: Mayor approves $95,000 social media hire, accuses reporters of "setting up a false narrative"

"For me, this is a red herring story."
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Today we saw a side of mayor Kennedy Stewart that we hadn't yet been exposed to since he was sworn in to office in November of 2018.

The unflappable-until-today mayor got testy and nearly lost his cool while answering questions from reporters who had gathered for a press conference. In it, he had hoped to talk to them about how the City is working to help the local economy recover after being devastated due to COVID-19.

As a bit of background, yesterday Global News ran a story about the City approving the future hire of a social media manager for $95,000, while cutting other pieces out of their budget.

About an hour prior to the mayor's press conference, the City issued a press release that threw considerable shade. Its subject contained the word "misinformation" and it said that "Some news outlets are sharing incorrect information regarding funding for a social media strategist at the City of Vancouver."

However nothing about the information reported was incorrect. It was simply a story they did not want to address.

One of the Global reporters who worked on the piece, Jordan Armstrong, was the first to the microphone today. He asked why, after they cut the police budget and new funding for sanitation, they would go ahead and approve a future hire for a social media position which will pay $95,000.

Dodging the question, Stewart instead spent a full minute praising the work of all staff, then wandered off into something about how he was on "international calls" with mayors in other cities about COVID-19. Trying to bring it back and stay on the message of the press conference, he then said that because of hardworking staff, the City is now in a "terrific position for economic recovery".

He ended the drawn-out, non-answer with "I think our staff have done an amazing job, and we're lucky to have them," which is hard to argue with. But it has nothing to do with the optics of approving a $95,000 social media position for an already-bloated communications department, during a pandemic that has resulted in tough decisions around cuts.

Armstrong continued to press, asking for the exact number of employees working in comms for the City. Stewart dodged again by saying they've laid people off.

The answer to the question is 41 people work in that department. You can see their job titles HERE [hat tip to Justin McElroy].

Reporters are limited to two questions during these press conferences so, thinking he had effectively killed the story by avoiding it, the mayor refused to answer when presented with more questions. He said "Thank you for your persistence," and moved on to the next reporter.

That reporter was Armstrong's colleague, Nadia Stewart from Global News. She picked up where he left off, asking about the optics of approving the hire.

The mayor laughed, started his response to Nadia with a frustrated "Okay, look..." then mansplained that the city has 10,000 employees, a $1.6 billion budget, and that this is just one hire they were talking about.

He then accused the reporters of setting up a "false narrative," and that their "focus on one job is kind of a weird story to follow."

Somewhere in there he did finally attempt to justify the decision to make the future hire (which will happen after their hiring freeze ends), saying that "Communicating with citizens is very important, especially when all of us are physically distancing."

He expressed that "For me, this is a red herring story."

The exchange was reminiscent of a media scrum we saw former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson's in during the dying days of his time in office. It was at a point where he had seemed to have had enough and was basically phoning it in.

After being pushed about the City's decision to spend $8,000 on a new logo that nobody liked, Robertson fired back by saying that "This is the most absurd line of questioning I think I've ever heard in my eight years as mayor," before partly explaining why they spent the money and what they planned to do next.

He ended with a plea to reporters to offer coverage of issues he would personally rather see in the news; "Please focus on the overdose crisis, on homelessness, affordable housing and the critical pieces, thank you very much," and walked off.

The work on the logo in question never continued, Robertson sailed off into the sunset, and Stewart took his place, telling the media what he thinks they should be focusing on. Or shouldn't be, in this case.