It’s a new month and a new year, but a recent story out of the Winnipeg Free Press shows municipal governments will still be up to the same old tactics — withholding information.
On Wednesday, our sister paper ran an editorial rightfully castigating the City of Winnipeg for denying information to city Coun. Harvey Smith, who wants to know how much that city’s privately run garbage and recycling collector has been fined for performance problems.
Not long ago, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz and other councillors had made several public threats to penalize the company, Emterra, with “very significant” fines after the city received thousands of complaints of missed collections and lost carts.
But as the Free Press reports, the councillor’s freedom of information request was turned down on the basis that it would affect the business interests of Emterra.
“The city didn’t tell Mr. Smith how disclosing the value of fines would affect the company’s interests, a concern it does not display when releasing the names of restaurants that have been penalized for health violations,” the Free Press editorial read. “It also shows no concern for the reputations of firms and individuals who violate bylaws or commit some minor sin against the common good.”
Local readers may well remember a similar denial to a Brandon Sun two-part request to the City of Brandon for the “total number of letters of reprimand issued to all members of the Brandon Fire and Emergency Services over the last five years” that we made in 2011, and continued to fight through the Ombudsman’s office in 2012.
Our request was initially refused because the city said that information “could harm the City of Brandon’s relationship with Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association” and would “hamper the city’s ability to deal with the association in good faith in the future.”
At that time, firefighter and union leader Lt. Wade Richie had been suspended without pay and demoted.
After the Sun filed a complaint over the city’s non-disclosure of information to the office of the Manitoba Ombudsman, the city sent us another letter in April noting that it was denying the requests for different reasons. The request for the simple number of reprimands was now denied as it could “interfere with or prejudice contractual or other negotiations of a public body or the Government of Manitoba.”
And the story changed a third time after the City of Brandon and the firefighters union reached a comprehensive settlement last May. Two months later, we were told it would cost us $435 to find out how many letters of reprimand exist, as it would take about 16.5 hours to process the request.
As we previously wrote on this page, the whole ridiculous affair highlighted the city’s use of stall tactics available to it under the provincial legislation to delay or outright halt the free flow of information to its citizens.
The fact that Smith’s request was denied without a good reason simply reaffirms that point.
Governments, whether provincial, federal or municipal, are hiding behind freedom of information legislation that has been designed to purposefully stymie access, not enhance it. And in the resulting vacuum of information, the quality of public debate is lowered.
The fact that Katz may not have made good on his threat is hidden from citizens. This is information that we believe should be on the public record.
And when even simple little requests — like the number of reprimands to city employees — are refused or made difficult to obtain, it should make all of us wary of the existing FOI laws.