The Brandon Sun has marked the end of Right to Know Week, often recognized with a nationwide audit of freedom of information requests, by releasing the findings of its own access requests made to governments.
Over the past 12 months, The Brandon Sun has directed more than 19 Freedom of Information requests to various levels of government. Few of those requests resulted in full disclosure of information and only a handful more resulted in partial disclosure of information.
The news wasn’t all bad on the public disclosure front.
The City of Brandon did fully comply with a Brandon Sun request for information relating to the Brandon Fire and Emergency Services’ water rescue operations, after requesting an 30-day extension beyond the 30 days required to respond to requests.
The best response to an access to information request came in April, when within hours of making a verbal request, emails and correspondence about issues related to the Strand Theatre project were released. Those emails revealed an exchange between Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell and two provincial government staffers where Caldwell’s request for assistance to "fast-track" a Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society request for funding to restore the Strand Theatre was made.
The city also made partial disclosures related to one of four requests for documents related to the reporting of Brandon’s 2010 and 2011 financial statements, as well as the moving of data between the Bellamy and Diamond financial software systems. The city has denied access to any documents related to the Bellamy and Diamond financial software systems, citing the disclosure could harm third-party business interests, the potential for law enforcement or legal proceedings and that solicitor-client privilege applied as lawyers had been consulted to deal with contractual issues.
However, the city did partially grant access to emails exchanged between the city and the provincial Local Government department on the progress of the city’s 2010 and 2011 financial statements. Details related to the retirement plans of a former employee were not disclosed.
But the city was not afraid to use the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to deny requests for information either.
A series of requests related to requests for information relating to the conflict of interest issue and verbal legal opinion offered on the matter between Decter Hirst, Renaissance Brandon and the Strand Theatre has not yielded many documents. Official requests made on June 18 for information related to legal costs paid by the city to secure the legal opinion, and for any documents related to the legal opinion itself and the city council meeting where that was discussed, have been denied. The city stated that solicitor-client privilege applied and the request could not be granted. The city also invoked the local public body confidences provision of the law, adding that the information was provided at a closed meeting of council.
Those requests have been appealed and an Ombudsman Manitoba investigation of the complaint has started.
In one request to the Clerk of Executive Council, four requests for documents related to correspondence exchanged between MLAs and the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society resulted in a single document: a BFMAS invitation to attend the 2011 Brandon Folk, Music and Art Festival that was sent to the Premier’s Office. Clerk of the Executive Council Paul Vogt said an email that had already been disclosed from a request to the Brandon mayor’s office no longer existed and that "government staff is not required to retain transient documents."
A request to Manitoba Finance for documents sent or received by Vince Barletta regarding the Strand Theatre and the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society resulted in a release of emails. However, some emails were heavily redacted and the information released included two previously published Brandon Sun stories.
The longest battle to access documents continues to this day, 11 months after the initial request was made.
On Oct. 24, 2011, the City of Brandon was requested to provide the numbers of letters of reprimand issued to Lt. Wade Ritchie of Brandon Fire and Emergency Services for the last five years and for the total number of letters of reprimand issued to the entire department over the same five-year period. That request was made as the department and Ritchie were locked in a labour arbitration battle over work-related matters, Ritchie’s dismissal in January 2012, then reinstatement in May, by the Manitoba Labour Board.
These requests were first rejected outright by the city because it deemed the release an invasion of Ritchie’s privacy. Information on the total number of letters was also denied as the disclosure could harm the city’s relationship with the firefighters union and could have affected the ability to deal in good faith with the union.
That decision was appealed in February 2012, but not before the city failed to meet an obligation to inform the paper of its right to appeal the decision, and in April, the city revised its reasons for denying the information. This time, the city refused access to the number of Ritchie’s letters of reprimand — not the letters themselves — as it was subject to a mandatory exclusion to Manitoba’s access to information law, as it could reveal information supplied to an arbitrator or another body appointed to resolve a labour relations dispute. The city maintained its refusal to disclose the number of letters issued to the whole department and was required to the disclosure "will hamper the city’s ability to negotiate with the (firefighter’s union) going forward."
Only months after a settlement was reached did the city offer to disclose the number of letters issued to the whole department. However, that disclosure came with a $435 price tag, a figure, that according to foiaudit.com, is greater than the largest fee charged by the provincial government in 2012 ($240), but less than the largest fee estimate charged by the City of Winnipeg ($7,140). The charge has been appealed to Ombudsman Manitoba and the matter is under investigation.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 29, 2012