Freedom-of-information laws exist in this country to ensure that its citizens have timely access to government documents and reports. It’s a bureaucratic process that every Canadian, not just newspapers or political parties, have a right to exercise.
But there is a growing trend among the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government to confound requests made under freedom-of-information legislation.
For example, last spring the Manitoba government tried to charge $1.9 million to the Winnipeg Free Press after our sister paper sought copies of correspondence between Manitoba’s Emergency Measures Organization and other key players that provide flood compensation to First Nations — a fee that was later waved after it hit the newspaper headlines.
And earlier this week, the Toronto District School Board told the Toronto Star that it would have to pay $3.6 million before the board releases a database of work orders showing what taxpayers have been charged for maintenance and construction projects at local schools.
While these are extreme instances of government abuse of freedom-of-information legislation, there are more mundane examples of governments attempting to hide behind the pretext of privacy protection right here at home.
Not long after we learned the Brandon firefighters union backed a Manitoba Labour Board unfair labour practice complaint against the City of Brandon for placing union president Wade Ritchie on forced paid leave last October, the Sun filed a freedom-of-information request with the city for the following:
• The number of letters of reprimand issued to Lt. Wade Ritchie of the Brandon Fire and Emergency Services for the last five years;
• The total number of letters of reprimand issued to all members of the Brandon Fire and Emergency Services over the last five years.
After initially acknowledging the request later that month, the city’s access and privacy officer issued a letter on Nov. 21, officially denying the two-part request. Access to the Ritchie reprimand letters was denied as an “unreasonable invasion of a third party’s privacy” under Manitoba’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. We were not surprised.
However, the second part — the number of reprimand letters — was refused because 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.”
It’s important to realize that by this time, Ritchie had been suspended without pay and demoted. On Jan. 26, he was fired from his position as a firefighter/paramedic.
In that November letter, the access and privacy officer failed to inform the Sun of its right to appeal his decision to the Office of the Manitoba Ombudsman.
In February, the Sun filed a complaint over the city’s non-disclosure of information to the office of the Manitoba Ombudsman, which prompted another letter from the city in April noting that they were denying the requests for different reasons. Access to the Ritchie reprimands was denied because it was labour relations information that could reveal information “supplied to, or the report of, an arbitrator, mediator, labour relations officer or other person appointed to resolve or inquire into a labour relations dispute.”
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.”
On May 14, the City of Brandon and the firefighters union reached a comprehensive settlement that resolved all outstanding matters before the Manitoba Labour Board as well as a number of related arbitrations — that “win-win” claptrap that we have already castigated on this page.
Amazingly, nearly two months after that settlement, the Sun received yet another letter from the City of Brandon that has again changed the reasons for the denial of firefighter reprimand records — for Ritchie. The invasion of a third party’s privacy was now unreasonable once more. But the city has now withdrawn its objection with respect to the number of reprimands issued over the last five years.
But it will cost us $435 to find out how many letters of reprimand exist, as the city says it will take about 16.5 hours to gather the information.
Of course, $435 is hardly a million-dollar fee. But to charge that kind of money for simply supplying the number — not even the content — of letters of reprimand is ludicrous.
Worse still, this whole ridiculous affair highlights the city’s use of tactics available to it under the provincial legislation to delay or outright halt the free flow of information to its citizens. This is unacceptable and flies in the face of Mayor Shari Decter Hirst’s promise of an “open and transparent government.”
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 27, 2012