“I don’t like politics.”
It’s an odd thing for The Gazette’s city hall reporter to say, but Linda Gyulai explains: her motivations are journalistic, not political. She’s not out there to sabotage the mayor (even though many on both sides of the aisle at city hall may think so). She’s not out there to stir up controversy. She’s out there to explain to people what goes on in their municipal government, both the things they want the world to know about and the things they’d rather keep secret.
If it means she ruffles a few feathers along the way, that’s part of the job. She doesn’t take it personally.
And if it wins her some awards, that’s just a bonus.
A week to remember
On May 27, Gyulai put on a fancy black dress, and travelled to Rideau Hall in Ottawa as an invited guest of the governor-general. The Gazette, along with other high-profile news organizations, had been nominated for the prestigious Michener Award for public-service journalism. Unlike most journalism awards, the Michener is awarded to the publication or news outlet instead of the individual journalist. But The Gazette was nominated for Gyulai’s investigations into Montreal’s water meter contract, and Gyulai gave a speech as one of the nominees.
After the nominees had given their speeches, each case seeming particularly worthy of the award, foundation president Russell Mills tore open an envelope and read out the name of the winner.
No one was more surprised than Gyulai when he read out “The Gazette.”
“I sat there for a long time in shock,” she told me during a recent chat at our office. She said the CPAC video of the presentation didn’t show her patting her chest with her hand, unable to accept that her reporting had won such a prestigious award.
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Alan Allnutt gave the acceptance speech, and Gyulai was invited on stage to snap some photos with the governor-general.
The next day, back in Montreal, Gyulai entered the Gazette newsroom to an enthusiastic standing ovation from her coworkers.
“It was an overwhelming response,” she said. People were emailing her and calling her. Old high school classmates were looking her up on Facebook. “I’ve never felt so supported and encouraged.”
The next night, at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Journalists, conveniently being held in Montreal this year, Gyulai put on another fancy black dress and sat in the audience, only to be stunned again when she learned she’d won her second award in three days for her reporting on the water meter contract. Though the CAJ awards had many winners that night, her name was first on that list, and her award was arguably the most prestigious of them.
The previous two years, Gyulai had been nominated for National Newspaper Awards (considered the most prestigious of awards for newspaper journalists in Canada) – in 2008 for a feature on Montreal’s water system (somewhat ironically in retrospect), and in 2009 for a short feature about traffic cones. The latter resulted in some teasing from coworkers who thought it funny that the most recognized story of her career might have been one explaining the history of an orange cone. She didn’t win either time, leaving her CV as “nationally award-nominated journalist” until the Michener prize last month.
Gyulai was quick to point out in her post-win quotes to her own newspaper, and to me, that this award should be shared with her colleagues who supported her work, and other journalists who keep hacking at the brick walls that separate them from the truth.
“I’m not working in a room by myself,” she said, alluding to the managers that gave her time to work on these stories, and I can only imagine acknowledging the supreme efforts of the copy editors who polished her copy into the gold that readers see in the newspaper. (Really, this is as much my award as it is hers, no?)
“I got a tip that there was something wonky,” she started off. She won’t say where this tip came from, but she made it a point to thank that anonymous person publicly when accepting the Michener Award. The tip was that a contract approved by Montreal city council in November 2007 was a bad deal for the city. It came in the spring of 2009, shortly after La Presse had revealed a rather cordial relationship between executive committee chair Frank Zampino and a businessman named Tony Accurso that involved trips on Accurso’s yacht.
The “wonky” contract was a $355.8-million deal – the largest in the city’s history – with a consortium known as Génieau to install meters to measure the flow of water into commercial, industrial and institutional buildings in the city. (Accurso was part of this consortium, and Zampino would later join it after he retired from city politics in 2008.) Once the meters were installed, which was to happen by 2013, the city could charge organizations for the amount of water they consumed, and so encouraging them to use less.
“The first thing I did was go to city hall and look for the contract,” she told me. A city hall veteran, she knew that it would be attached to the motion that approved the contract in November 2007 (PDF). (She wasn’t present at that meeting herself, as she was working on two feature stories at the time.) But when she got to city hall, she was in for a surprise: the contract wasn’t there, and city hall wasn’t going to give it to her.
Strange for a project they had been touting so much just before it was approved. (Then again, this was back when they called themselves the “Tremblay-Zampino administration”.)
In fact, not only was the contract not made public even after it was approved by city council, she would learn, but the full contract wasn’t even given to the councillors who approved it.
“I’d never seen that,” Gyulai said. She had to file an access to information request to get a copy of something that was approved by city council.
She has learned the hard way through brick walls like this that this is the way the Tremblay administration operates. Just as we were chatting about her reporting, she had filed a story about outgoing police chief Yvan Delorme testifying at a city council committee about irregularities in the department’s dealings with private security firm BCIA. She asked the department for a copy of Delorme’s CV, but they refused to give it to her, she said, sighing. It became a sentence in the story: “The police department refused to provide The Gazette a copy of Delorme’s curriculum vitae yesterday. It offered no explanation.” And another access to information request will be required for something as simple as finding out where the police chief has worked before.
“I just read the contract”
After filing the access to information request and badgering the city for an interview with their water officials, Gyulai eventually got a copy of the Génieau water meter contract, and began to read it. Then she compared the contract to the call for qualification and call for proposals (with its 14 addenda) that Génieau bid on – not an easy task because those documents comprising the two-step tendering process went on for hundreds of pages total.
“I didn’t know what I was looking for,” she said. Still, she spent months sifting through these documents during the journalistically quiet months of summer 2009. She thanks her bosses at The Gazette for giving her the time to devote to long-term investigative work, even in the midst of a media crisis and while the newsroom is short-staffed during summer vacations.
Not being an expert on engineering, water maintenance or other things detailed in the documents she was reading, Gyulai interviewed experts to find out what was considered normal and abnormal in these kinds of contracts. When she would stumble on something that she thought the public should know (many of them that the adminstration didn’t want the public to know), she started pumping out details, many of them exclusives:
- Connections between former St. Leonard borough mayor Frank Zampino and construction company Dessau, one of the members of the Génieau consortium
- The city won’t own the telecommunications system used to report meter data, which could cause a serious problem when the contract ends
- The contract’s total is more than double what a consultant’s study said it would cost in 2003
- The $355.8 million doesn’t include $68 million for a new command centre, which the city will have to pay for
- The savings reached by installing water meters were exaggerated by the city (who said the meters would pay for themselves), based on a consultant’s report in 2002
The biggest one came in August, when Gyulai reported that the contract went through major changes – apparently secretly – two months before it was approved by city council, and all those changes benefited the contractor, not the city. Among them, that the contractor’s obligation for maintenance of the water meters would be reduced from 25 years to 15 (apparently significant because 15 years is when the meters were expected to start breaking down), and all the financial risk would be shifted from the contractor to the city.
“The meat was in all these seemingly minor tweaks to wording,” she explained. “The documents also included questions the city fielded from the bidders, and the answers. They also referred to meetings between the bidders and the city rep. It became apparent that one document was missing – the minutes to a meeting that took place a few days before the most radical changes were made to the tenders (which was just a few weeks before the bidding deadline). The city told me they had no records for that meeting.”
Gone in 60 seconds
During the course of her investigation, she watched the video of that November 2007 council meeting (Windows Media Video) in which the water meter contract was approved. City council helpfully records council meetings and uploads them to their website, even though very few people actually watch.
She was surprised at how simply such a huge contract got through the council. There was no discussion, no debate. The motion was carried unanimously – omnibus with four other unrelated motions. All the Vision Montreal councillors present voted for it. Richard Bergeron voted for it. Even though they didn’t see the contract, an oversight they would later regret.
“I timed it,” Gyulai said. It took only 53 seconds for the largest contract in Montreal’s history to be approved by city council.
I have it at 60-61 seconds, all included:
City council approved $435,224,571.34 in spending in only 60 seconds, of which 10 seconds were spent making the motions omnibus and 42 seconds reading the motions. Only the remaining eight seconds were spent asking for debate, asking for votes and declaring all the motions approved.
Gyulai’s reporting brought to light irregularities with a contract that the auditor-general would later find so much fault with that not only would he recommend that the city cancel it, but he handed over documents to the police and suggested there be a criminal investigation.
Gyulai wasn’t the only reporter pulling out scoops about municipal politics. Montreal was in the middle of a municipal election campaign, and reporters from Rue Frontenac, Enquête, La Presse, Le Devoir and elsewhere were bringing up all sorts of stuff about Benoit Labonté, the mayor and his party, and Frank Zampino and Tony Accurso. Nor was this Gyulai’s only investigation that made a difference. Her probe into the privatization of the Société d’habitation et de développement de Montréal was also followed by an auditor-general’s report that pointed out irregularities and turned over documents to the police.
Contacts come from respect
Beat journalists develop contacts over time. It just seems to happen. People recognize your face and think of you when they want to put out information.
“When you cover any beat, you end up talking to many people,” Gyulai said. “If you sound like you’ve done your research, they respect that.”
She knows her contacts have their reasons for passing on tips. Some are obviously political. Some are personal. Some are just people who have a conscience and want the truth to come out.
Either way, she’ll check everything she gets. If it’s true (and interesting), she’ll write about it. If she can’t verify it, she won’t.
“As long as the public gets the information, I don’t care where it comes from,” she said.
Though she was careful not to give away too much information that could lead to exposing her sources, she did say that “over the years, I’ve developed a lot of contacts, and they come from unexpected places.” It’s not (always) people on city council trying to sabotage someone else for personal political gain. It’s not, despite what you might see on The West Wing, the spokespeople who take journalists aside after a press briefing and leak juicy details prefaced with “this is all off the record.”
And it’s not Gérald Tremblay. (Maybe.)
I asked Gyulai if any of the congratulations she got for her awards came from the mayor or other officials at city hall. After all the attacks levelled at her articles, all the dismissals of the points she tried to bring up, all the times the mayor and others assured the population that the evil media was trying to drum up scandal where none existed, the mayor eventually agreed that the water meter contract was improper, cancelled the contract and called in the police.
If she was right all along, and her work helped stop the city from wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money, shouldn’t she have gotten an apology, or at least a thank you, from the people in charge?
Apparently, no. Some politicians did call to thank and congratulate her (most, as you’d expect, from the opposition). But she never heard from Tremblay. And she’s okay with that.
“I don’t take it personally,” she said. “It’s a job.”
Gyulai said she has noticed a change in culture between Tremblay and his predecessor, Pierre Bourque. “Bourque didn’t try to shoot the messenger,” she said of attacks on her journalism and those of her colleagues at other media. “The tactic (with Tremblay) seems to be to try to discredit the messenger. I don’t think it works.”
So why try? Gyulai thinks this is an issue of a fundamental misunderstanding about her motivations. They see her as a political element. She doesn’t.
They think she’s out to get the mayor (and hence indirectly support the opposition). She isn’t. Opposition members think she’s their friend because they have the same goals. She isn’t, because they don’t.
“They’re inherently confrontational,” she said. But Gyulai doesn’t judge her work based on how much political trouble it causes the mayor, or how much it changes the balance of power at city hall. She gets satisfaction from getting the story, bringing clarity to an issue. It could be something scandalous, or it could be just about explaining the history of a traffic cone.
Still, Gyulai sees herself as a force of good in her little world.
“I like covering city hall because it’s one of the few places where you can ride that horse of righteousness,” she said.
Congratu … Point of order!
Last week, as city council was meeting, Gyulai got word via one of those old-fashioned letters that Vision Montreal was going to present a motion to the council congratulating her and The Gazette for their Michener award win.
But it never made it to council. Rumour had it that Marvin Rotrand, the majority party’s leader in the council, didn’t want it presented.
Rotrand told me later that’s not how it went down. He said he was only told about it the night before the council meeting, after he would have had a chance to discuss it with his caucus, and then they simply chose not to present the motion to council.
“It’s a constant game between Anie Samson and myself,” Rotrand said, referencing his counterpart with Vision Montreal.
Vision Montreal didn’t respond to a request for comment about this.
We’ll see if it’s brought up again at the next meeting. Rotrand wouldn’t commit to voting for such a motion, saying he would need to see the exact wording and that he worried a bit about the precedent it might set (would council have to congratulate every Montreal journalist who wins an award?), but didn’t dismiss it either. And he had only kind words for Gyulai, whom he pointed out he has known for 20 years.
Mirror to Hour to Gazette
Gyulai said she went into journalism to cover social issues, freelancing for Mirror in the early 1990s after graduating from McGill University (political science, 1990), where she worked at the McGill Daily from 1988-90 as a reporter and news editor, then at Concordia, where she got a graduate diploma in journalism in 1993.
Her editor at Mirror said they needed someone to cover city hall, and if she did so she’d have guaranteed space every week. She took the offer, and started covering city hall during the 1994 election campaign. She remembers going to her first council meeting, and seeing Rotrand deliver a petition about two HLMs that had no janitorial services.
“I thought, well, you can cover social issues from city hall,” she said.
In her decade and a half following municipal politics, she has written stories about public transit, labour issues, architectural heritage, immigration. She’s gotten close to real social issues in a way that a provincial or federal political reporter could only explore in an abstract way. She wrote about things others wouldn’t, perhaps because they thought the stories were boring, or perhaps because they came from a guy everyone thought was a nut.
In 1997, as media giant Quebecor purchased Mirror, the paper had to cut its staff by one, and Gyulai had been hired only the year before full-time, so she was the one to get the boot. She decided to follow Peter Scowen, who, shortly after hiring Gyulai to her full-time job at Mirror, jumped to this new competing paper called Hour.
“When my job ended two weeks later, I went straight from writing my last article for the Mirror to writing my first freelance piece for Hour,” Gyulai said. “The Mirror editor called me on the Thursday that my first Hour piece appeared and said, ‘How could you do this? Why didn’t you tell me? We could have negotiated something.'”
Eventually, Gyulai got a call from Brian Kappler, then the Gazette’s city editor (now its editorial page editor), offering her a reporting job on the night desk. The “cop reporter,” as it’s called, is an entry-level job usually filled by the least senior reporter. The job usually consists of calling up the cops periodically between 6pm and midnight and asking if anything big has happened. Most of the time it’s pretty boring, until something big happens and then it can become terrifying.
Gyulai turned him down. She wanted to keep her city hall beat, and taking this job, even at a higher pay, wouldn’t have allowed her to do that.
Eventually, as the 1998 municipal election was approaching, the Gazette was in the market for a city hall reporter, and Gyulai accepted The Gazette’s offer to join its reporting team in that position. (Ah, how one longs for the days when newspapers sought out talented journalists instead of finding ways to buy them out.) She joined the paper, and her first byline as a staff reporter – a story on A3 about revisions to the list of electors – appeared on August 25, 1998. (She had freelanced for the paper before, particularly in 1993 and 1994.) She has since written more than 2,000 more bylined articles for The Gazette in 12 years, an average of more than three a week.
Though going to the Gazette was a no-brainer for Gyulai, she says working for the alternative weeklies provided her with a lot of good training she wouldn’t have had at a major daily. Because they come out once a week instead of once a day, she couldn’t just report on what people said at press conferences. She would have to find interesting stories to cover, ones the mainstream media wouldn’t think about.
As for the future, Gyulai has no plans to leave her beat. “I don’t see an end to it,” she said. With politics, there’s always something new.
She hopes to be able to spend less time doing the daily grind and being a stenographer for city council meetings, and spending more time working on longer-term stories.
But she doesn’t know. She can’t predict the future, and she has no idea what stories await her.
After all, she said: “You never know where a story is going to come from.”