Tapped out? A reporter’s challenge to get the information flowing

by Linda Gyulai

Initially, The Gazette planned to run a series of articles exploring warnings of an impending global water crisis. As the paper’s city hall reporter, I was asked by the editors to find a municipal angle and contribute a story in two weeks.

Immediately, I called city hall’s PR and communications people asking to speak with a civil servant who could answer technical questions on the municipal water network and how it functioned.  I was told an interview would be forthcoming. Each time I called back, the person told me: “Shouldn’t be long now.”

Without any direct source in the bureaucracy to talk to, I used the internet search engine the “Wayback Machine” to hunt down old municipal web pages that once gave detailed information about the facility. I also phoned contacts in other cities, such as Toronto and New York, to ask their civil servants about how sewage gets treated.

While I waited to speak with a civil servant in my hometown, I re-read a two-inch thick report produced for the city a few years earlier that detailed the problems plaguing the city’s aging and leaking water network. I also spoke with local environmental groups and Environment Canada to help me pinpoint the most pressing issues. It didn’t take long to hone in on concerns about overflows in the sewer network and about the absence of disinfection at the wastewater treatment plant, leading to bacteria and other pollutants being ejected into the St. Lawrence River.

Meanwhile, I repeatedly phoned the communications office at city hall requesting to speak to the director of the wastewater treatment facility or an assistant. Finally, with only a few days to go before deadline, I resorted to threats. My paper was going to run a story on Montreal’s sewage network, I said, and the story would say that city officials refused to answer questions. That changed things.  All of a sudden, an interview was scheduled with city councillor Sammy Forcillo, the administration’s point person on infrastructure. The municipal director of waterworks, Réjean Lévesque, would join us.

This experience is a good illustration of how things have changed at Montreal’s city hall under the current administration. In the past, it was possible to ask civil servants questions. Now, direct access to bureaucrats is almost always denied. If access is granted, it’s with the understanding that a senior politician will be there as well. To me, it seems as though civil servants can’t be trusted to answer fact-based questions on their own or about their areas of expertise.

Coincidentally, when we finally met for the interview in his office, Sammy Forcillo was effusive. “We’re going to help you win an award,” the city councillor said.  Forcillo was joking about the award, of course, and he apparently was unaware that I’d been stonewalled for almost two weeks. I’d interviewed him many times during the 13 years I’ve covered municipal politics and always found him accessible and open.  But, now, with two days before my deadline, his joking didn’t seem very funny.

We began what turned into a grueling two-and-a-half-hour interview because I had many questions to be asked.

Lévesque, meanwhile, patiently answered my questions, which were as mundane as how many litres of water typically flow down the sink while a person brushes their teeth?  When he heard I hadn’t been able to visit the wastewater treatment plant, he called the facility and arranged for a four-hour tour with its director the next morning.

The completed story seemed to resonate with readers. A number of people told me they had no idea the wastewater treatment plant ejected so many pollutants into the river.  And in January, two months after the story ran, the administration announced it would purchase a disinfection system for the plant.
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