Media’s biased PR campaigns influence Town’s budget and future plans

July 14, 2023 – Communities across the province of BC prepare Official Community Plans (OCPs), often with admirable public interest, meaningful participation and pride in the results.

Yet, the public often voices concerns about how and why certain ad hoc projects receive taxpayer funding while others appear to be perpetually stuck in planning mode, existing only as aspirations in the OCP.

One example illustrating why the Qualicum Beach OCP, in practice, seems to be ignored is the QB skateboard park “upgrade” that appears to have leapfrogged the OCP to suddenly become a funded “priority,” displacing or postponing other community investments and pressing needs.

So, how did the skateboard park “upgrade,” an initiative that only arose late last year — now billed as a replacement and earmarked in the budget to cost $1.2 million — get to the head of the line and be so expeditiously accommodated by the Town?

Qualicum Beach is desperate

The times we live in now are especially challenging. Communities across the province are struggling, and many people are finding it more difficult to put food on the table or trying to keep a roof over their heads. These pressing concerns are echoed in our community too.

Qualicum Beach desperately needs workers – desperately needs doctors – desperately needs more affordable housing – desperately needs a climate crisis action plan – desperately needs better transportation options – desperately needs an economic development plan… the list does not end there.

But, desperately needs a new skateboard park?

Front page photo caption reads “desperate need to upgrade the facility.” PQB News September 21, 2022 Photo: Michael Briones

One example of a long-awaited and much-needed civic boost that is currently on ice awaiting action by the Town, is the development of the so-call former ‘Bus Garage’ property.

In January 2021, after a four-month public procurement process, the Town announced it had sold a parcel of Town land on Memorial Avenue across from Qualicum Foods to Naked Naturals Whole Foods Ltd. for the development of a grocery store and residential rental units.

“Naked Naturals will subsequently submit a full development application, which will be the subject of a public zoning amendment application and development permit review,” reported PQB News after the Town confirmed the sale.

According to a Town media release reported by PQB News, the Town retained its strip of adjacent land “for the development of public amenities such as a public square, pavilion, theatre or amphitheatre.” The Town said they would be “exploring the development of amenities” on the remaining Town portion of the land, and that the Town would “engage residents and stakeholder groups in a discussion about how to best deal with the remaining town land for amenities.”

Naked Naturals fulfilled the requirements asked of them to proceed with the development, but the development project has not progressed, at least in part because the Town, which apparently stipulated that the development must be compatible with the Town’s plans for the community amenities has, two years later, still not decided what to do with the land that they retained for public amenities.

Other projects which have stalled for years pending action by the Town include a tree protection bylaw, which has been requested for over a decade, and which many other BC communities have implemented successfully years ago.

It wasn’t until March 24, 2023 that the Town finally did manage to take some action, and then only to squeak out an “interim” Tree Protection Bylaw after a raucous debate and objections from the one holdout, Councillor Scott Harrison. READ: Qualicum Beach council adopts interim tree protection bylaw. Most other communities around the globe by now recognize the value of a mature and healthy tree canopy to help mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis.

In January 2023, during a strategic planning session organized and led by consultants hired by the Town, CAO Lou Varela said the Town doesn’t have enough staff to handle all of its existing projects and workload, and that that would curtail the number of projects that could be funded in the 2023 Town budget.

So why did the Town Administration suddenly, in a matter of months, elevate this discretionary QB Skateboard Park “upgrade” proposal to a funded priority, leapfrogging other, arguably more serious, issues when staff cannot meet their current workload demands?

Public participation in strategic planning lacking

On January 11, 2023, Qualicum Beach Council and senior Town Administration managers sat in a small meeting room at the Civic Centre listening intently as the two consultants hired to coach them in strategic planning explained the process to be followed in setting the Town’s 2023 budget priorities.

As part of the Town of Qualicum Beach’s expressed desire to increase transparency, the Town had invited the public to take part in the strategic planning exercise to learn more about where our tax dollars will be spent. But the Town apparently wasn’t planning for a big turnout.

The invitation for this two-day Strategic Planning Session was issued less than a week beforehand and immediately after the holiday season, giving the public little lead time to fit this opportunity into their schedules.

Holding the planning session during weekdays also prevented many workers from attending. There were also no provisions for childcare offered to parents who might have wanted to attend. The sessions were not recorded for later public viewing, as council and other meetings are. Three rows of chairs for the public were crammed into the small meeting room, but the attendance was sporadic. Fewer than 20 members of the public attended at any one time.

In contrast, a town hall meeting organized a few months later by local Member of Parliament, Gord Johns, was well publicized ahead of time, and held in the early evening in the Civic Centre’s main auditorium. That public discussion drew several hundred members of the public.

Despite the lacklustre public turnout for the Town’s Strategic Planning Session, it did shed some light on the Town’s strategic planning process and the results, including the Skateboard Park upgrade proposal.

The Skateboard Park campaign

Qualicum Beach’s current Official Community Plan (2018) does not mention anything about a skateboard park upgrade. Nor did a skateboard park proposal appear anywhere in the Town of Qualicum Beach’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan.

In May 2022, PQB News published a story about a skateboard shop that had just opened up in Qualicum Beach.

Store owner Peter Ducommon, referred to in this story by his nickname “PD,” said he was “disappointed” when he tried out the local skateboard park.

Ducommon’s comments suggested that QB’s existing skateboard park was encouraging vandalism by local skateboarders. “‘When it’s a skatepark that’s not great,” he is quoted in the article saying, ‘kids go there and hang out and break bottles,’ PD said. ‘And when it’s a skatepark that’s great, kids go and they skate there and they self-police it and they look after it and they clean up.’”

The PQB News article did not question or confirm whether there actually had been any problems with skateboarders breaking bottles in QB’s skateboard park.

“He [Ducommon] added he thinks the skatepark has potential and hopes to get involved with improvements.”

There’s nothing unusual in publishing a story about a new business in town. Second Opinion QB often publishes stories about new or existing businesses. Nothing wrong with skateboarding either; Second Opinion QB published a photo essay in June 2022 of children and adults enjoying the QB skateboard park.

Election campaign in full gear

On September 15, 2022 — one month before the municipal election — a group of people invited all candidates to a “rally” at the existing QB skateboard park.

A week later, on September 21, PQB News published a story about the rally, Group highlights need to upgrade Qualicum Beach skateboard park and a separate photo feature page with five photos from the event (Friday night in the park). [To see the actual version of each paper copy of PQB News, go to their e-Editions section.]

Poster appeared around QB just prior to 2022 municipal election.

The feature photo on the front page of this issue of PQB News was yet another photo from this rally. Two children, four and six years old, were shown skateboarding at the QB skateboard park during the rally. The caption said the front page photo said it was taken “…during a special gathering at the Qualicum Beach skatepark on Sept 15, designed to highlight what users say is a desperate need to upgrade the facility.” [emphasis added] We will italicize words in quoted material in this story to identify unsubstantiated facts or biased language used in a media story.

This PQB News story was a case study in contradictions, and hints at the media cheerleading to come.

The story stated that “a number of four-year-old children” were using the skateboard park during the rally, but “they showed no fear. Parents put on a brave face but they do have concerns and fears.”

One parent of two children aged four and six who were using the skateboard park that night, was quoted saying, “It’s a little sketchy, everything is a little steep,” but that she “indicated she keeps an eye on both when they’re in the park.” Another parent said of her four-year-old, “There are some concerns but she’s got her helmet on… She likes it.” Nothing desperate so far.

Oddly, the only strong complaint came from an adult skateboarder who apparently was speaking about concerns he himself had using the skateboard park. “I do think the park is unsafe,” said Eric Pinto.

“Every transition and surface here is very aggressive. I have never seen a skatepark like that.” Pinto was described as “an avid skateboarder and collector who is one of the many users of the park who wants [sic] to see the aging recreational facility resurfaced and upgraded.”

In the lead-up to the municipal election, people noticed that two youths had suddenly begun skateboarding down Second Avenue West on a regular basis.

Glossy red posters also began showing up around town advocating for a new skateboard park, touting benefits that stop just short of curing cancer.

The actual sponsor of this pre-election advertising was not identified, only a social media address was provided.

PQB News media blitz – wall-to-wall coverage of a single project

With the October 2022 municipal election over, media coverage of the “desperately needed” skateboard park upgrade by PQB News resumed in anticipation of catching the Town’s 2023 budgeting window of opportunity that would soon present itself.

On November 30, 2022, Lindsay Reed made a presentation to the Committee of the Whole meeting, stating, “The old park continues to lure kids in only to find that they can’t really use it safely.” Reed provided no evidence to Council that the QB skateboard park was dangerous or caused injury. And, a few weeks earlier at the rally, scads of four-year-olds were careening about the skateboard park, parents looking on proudly — with members of Council, then candidates, in attendance.

On December 2, 2022 another skateboard park story appeared in PQB News, Qualicum Beach to consider making skateboarding park upgrade a strategic priority.

But the media blitz really ramped up to unprecedented levels in a single issue of PQB News.

On December 7, 2022, the newspaper featured skateboarding in five separate news stories or features, including a banner on the front page, for a total of seven pages of coverage. We couldn’t find another topic that has ever received that much attention in a single issue of the PQB News.

  • Cover page banner for Podcast skateboard story inside.
  • p A8  Council to look at skatepark issue All the boxes were checked in this story. The proposal was promoted to Council as having many “positive connotations,” including that skateparks can “remove barriers to allow demographic diversity, that skateparks are “about coming together from all walks of life,” and that skateparks are “where some people feel safest,” just to name a few of the myriad benefits touted.
  • p A9 Podcast story: Peter Ducommon talks skateboards. This extensive interview followed on the heels of a lengthy feature story just six months earlier in May 2022 announcing the opening of his skateboard store in Qualicum Beach.
  • p A10 Editorial Page “Question of the Week:  Do you believe Qualicum Beach needs a new skatepark?”
  • p A12 “Your Views” – “Readers share thoughts on skate park plan” Comments from unverified Facebook accounts. All commenters supported “the plan” — despite the fact that no plan actually existed, only a proposed, still-to-be-defined upgrade. The results of the poll published on p A10 showed that readers were almost equally divided about the need for any skateboard park upgrades: (51% – 49%).
  • p A27 podcast interview continued with headline “Qualicum Beach a perfect location for a skateboard shop”
  • p A34 podcast interview continued with headline “Ducommon also a pioneer in snowboarding industry”

January 11, 2023:  During the Strategic Planning Session, Town Administration revealed that the skateboard park upgrade is recommended as a “funded strategic priority.” We note that Parksville has a skateboard park too, larger than QB’s but much the same design features. The City of Parksville decided a new skateboard park was not a priority in a time calling for fiscal restraint, and decided to do some modest repairs (sealing cracks) instead, which were recently completed.

February 5, 2023: PQB News publishes another “good news” story, Qualicum Beach to make temporary enhancements to skatepark this summer. Lighting and benches are approved as “temporary enhancements,” the urgency unexplained.

In none of the articles we viewed that PQB News published about the proposed skateboard park upgrade was any evidence provided to support the claim that the Skateboard Park was unsafe.

Proposed “upgrade” morphs into a “$1.2 million replacement” of existing skateboard park

February 15, 2023:  In a meeting of the QB Select Committee on Parks and Recreation it was announced that Lindsay Reed had been appointed a member of the Committee. Reed was the person who promoted the proposal to the Council of the Whole meeting on December 2, 2022. In her introductory remarks to the Committee, said that the skateboard park is becoming “close to being unusable.” Reed said she “is grateful for benches and lights being added but noted these are interim measures.” In response, Town planner Luke Sales said that “the next council meeting will see some budget allocations that will include the skatepark.”

Excerpt from PQB News, September 21, 2022 edition.

March 7, 2023:  Heather Svensen, Corporate Administrator for the Town of Qualicum Beach, issued a Request for Proposals for a feasibility study for an upgrade “or replacement” of the existing QB skateboard park.

May 3, 2023:  Council approves awarding of tender for skate park feasibility study. The skateboard park is included in the 2023-27 Financial Plan with Town Finance Director Raj Hayre’s preliminary estimated budget of $1.2 million.

Meanwhile, the town continued to be blanketed in skateboard related posters for a seemingly non-stop string of skateboard “events” in advance of a public Open House seeking input into the design — now for a complete “replacement,” not for a skateboard park upgrade as it was billed mere months ago and originally proposed.

On June 23, 2023 PQB News announces a workshop to discuss skatepark design. It’s not a paid advertisement, it’s another freebie from PQB News.

In a “community newspaper” chock-a-block with paid advertising every week, none of the stories in PQB News’ public relations campaign for the skateboard park upgrade proposal was paid advertising.

Previous skateboard park upgrade went nowhere

Taking a step back, in October 2020, PQB News reported that “Council had approved an invitation to the Pacific Board Culture Society (PBCS) to submit a management and design plan to undertake upgrades. Town Council of the day also authorized a lease to be established with PBCS for the upgrade and management of the [skateboard] park.” The Society was registered in 2019 by two people, one being Jerrett Vanstone.

We contacted the current Chair of the QB Parks and Recreation Committee, Councillor Anne Skipsey, to ask about the status of that lease with the PBCS. Skipsey said she was not on Council at that time and has referred our question to Town Administration. We have not yet had a response.

In October 2019, Vanstone was quoted in a PQB News story, “The current construction of the park isn’t very adequate for people to learn how to skateboard… It’s made it really dangerous for kids to learn. There’s been a lot of injuries throughout the years,” said Vanstone. “Ideally, Vanstone would see a whole new park constructed,” wrote the reporter.

Coincidentally, Eric Pinto, the sole person at the fall 2022 rally who was quoted in the September 21, 2022 issue of PQB News saying that the skateboard park was unsafe, has also worked with Vanstone. Pinto was featured in a lengthy January 2020 PQB News interview where he was quoted saying, “I’ve been talking with Jerrett Vanstone, and I’ve been getting involved with Pacific Board Culture. We’re trying to get a new park at Qualicum Beach. That park is grossly outdated, and not very safe.”

Again, no evidence was presented in any of these stories to support the notion that the park is unsafe.

Why does this matter?

Members of the media make lofty statements about our vital role in a democratic society, and tout our professional ethics, ourselves included.

In an editorial on October 5, 2022 entitled “What to look for Oct. 15 from our PQB politicians,” PQB News told its readers that one of the things to look for was “Conviction:  It is easy to be swayed by a room full of people…”  The same warning could just as easily apply to the media waging public relations campaigns in apparent support of select projects.

What really sets PQB News’ reporting apart from media norms in their coverage of the skateboard park is their unabashed cheerleading sprinkled liberally throughout their “news” stories.

The other striking departure from accepted media standards and ethics is the sheer volume of coverage this one topic, biased in favour of this project, particularly when so many other projects and issues are languishing without attention, exposure or critical media analysis.

When the media strays from its expressed news reporting and journalism standards, they can skew priorities and compromise the future of a community.

Hospital emergency departments are shutting down across the Island, and our water supplies are threatened by climate change, but a new skateboard park is what the Town of Qualicum Beach Council and Administration believe warrants spending over a million dollars on in the next two years?