HOLIDAY HANGOVER The winter break is over and so is this column’s hiatus. That means I’ve assembled a lengthy collection of all the freedom of information news you may have missed over the holidays. From now on, I’ll also be dividing that roundup into federal, provincial and local news. Look for further commentary next week. Enjoy!
• In an interview with the Toronto Star, Treasury Board President Tony Clement — who is responsible for administering the country’s Access to Information Act — acknowledged there’s a need to review that legislation. But he said his government has “run out of time” to do that in a “meaningful” way. This, despite the fact his party promised in 2006 to simply “implement the Information Commissioner’s recommendations for reform of the Access to Information Act.” (hat tip: Dean Beeby)
• Clement also told the Canadian Press that some data can’t be released to the public in an electronic format because the government doesn’t want to “create a file that can be in some way manipulated and altered, and thereby creating a situation of false information.” But the Treasury Board Secretariat was unable to provide Maclean’s magazine with any examples of such manipulation taking place. Clement’s comments come as Canada’s information commissioner investigates “multiple cases where it appears that government departments aren’t releasing data in easy-to-read formats, even though the law requires it.”
• “The Canada Revenue Agency has destroyed all text message records of its employees and has disabled logging of these messages in the future,” according to the Toronto Star. (hat tip: Michael Karanicolas)
• “Three months after voting to undertake air strikes in Iraq, the federal government still hasn’t given a cost estimate for the mission to the Parliamentary Budget Officer,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.
• In an op-ed published in the Leader-Post, University of Saskatchewan history professor emeritus Bill Waiser writes, “The past few years have not been kind to [Canada’s] archives — through no fault of their own — and unless the situation improves, Canada’s understanding of its past will be decidedly poorer.”
• Mike De Souza, who has been hired as an investigative resources correspondent for Reuters, shares with readers some of his “recent experiences with government efforts to either release or hide information.” Among those experiences: a spokesperson telling colleagues that one of De Souza’s questions was “undeserving of a response.”
• The appointment of Amrik Virk as British Columbia’s new technology, innovation and citizens’ services minister has not been a comfort to journalists in that province. The reason: the BC NDP had released leaked emails appearing to show that when Virk on Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s board of governors he knew more than he previously admitted about a plan to circumvent the province’s compensation disclosure guidelines. That means — in the words of to The Tyee’s Jeremy Nuttall — “a minister busted by leaked emails” is now going to be running the ministry responsible for freedom of information in British Columbia.
• “Hospitals can easily get around Ontario’s accountability legislation to hide executive expenses,” according to the Hamilton Spectator. The newspaper also reports “no outside agency monitors how hospital board and executive expenses are posted publicly online.”
• The British Columbia government has denied a freedom of information request by the Western News for information about how much a new jail is going to cost to taxpayers. The reason: the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services believes disclosing that information would harm the financial interests of the government and its business partners.
• “The B.C. Ambulance Service has refused to release data that would show whether it is taking longer to respond to 911 calls,” according to the Vancouver Sun. The reason: the agency responsible for that service is “concerned about ‘re-identification’ — that releasing the data may make it possible to identify individual patients, especially in smaller communities.”
• The Toronto Star reports the Ontario government has “no idea” how many complaints have been lodged against its Crown prosecutors or “how many have been disciplined for misconduct in recent years.”
• “Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin is demanding to know why the province’s police watchdog is keeping secret its findings from an investigation into an altercation involving an OPP officer that left an Orillia woman with a busted knee last year,” according to the Toronto Star.
• Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation wants to charge the Toronto Star $2,000 for information about the pass rates for drivers seeking a license to operate a tractor-trailer. The reason: a computer programmer would have to ‘write new code to extract the data from the ministry’s licensing and control system database.” But, according to the newspaper, “this appears to contradict earlier communication from the ministry, which told the Star in September that pass rates by driver examiner and DriveTest centre are tracked in monthly reports from Serco, the private company that administers driver exams in Ontario on behalf of the government.” (hat tip: Ian Bron)
• The Leader-Post reports Saskatchewan’s new information commissioner plans to continue pushing for the province’s municipal police to be subject to the province’s freedom of information laws.
• The Edmonton Sun reports Alberta’s information commissioner is getting the provincial government to “cough up legal records” relating to its “ongoing $10-billion lawsuit against big tobacco.”
• CBC News reports an Alberta legislative committee “comprised mostly of Tory MLAs voted to cut about $1 million from six independent offices.” Those offices include the province’s information and privacy commissioner.
• When Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty was in power the Ontario government “billed taxpayers $10,000 to pay the husband of a top party official to wipe computer hard drives in Mr. McGuinty’s office,” according to the National Post. Those deletions happened as the “Liberals battled to contain the fallout” from the billion-dollar cancellation of two gas-fired power plants. (hat tip: BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association)
• The association representing Canada’s restaurant industry has written an open letter to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne asking her government to bring “accountability and transparency” to the province’s chicken prices. According to the association, “Waiting three years for chicken farmers to publish a simple and forthright price formula for a food staple many Ontario families put on their dinner table every night is simply not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable that the vested interest with the greatest stake in the price set for chicken, the producers themselves, should be in charge of the price-setting program.”
• The Burnaby News Leader reports that former British Columbia MLA Barry Jones, who pioneered the province’s freedom of information legislation, became interested in the issue while cleaning out the constituency office he had inherited from former legislator Eileen Dailly. That’s when he found a private members bill on FOI she had proposed. “I was about to throw it out and then started reading and got fascinated,” he told the newspaper.
• Manitoba’s ombudsman has found Winnipeg was technically within its rights to refuse a request by the Winnipeg Free Press for documents “revealing why city officials recommended buying and renovating the 56-year-old former Canada Post building instead of fixing the 48-year-old Public Safety Building.” But the ombudsman also said the city should revisit that decision.
• The St. Albert Gazette has been denied access to information about whether the Alberta city hands out radar tickets for drivers going less than 10 km/h over the speed limit. According to the newspaper, the city believes the disclosure of that information would be “harmful to law enforcement.”
• The Georgia Straight reports the Coalition of Progressive Electors, a Vancouver civic party, “accepted $12,500 in combined campaign contributions from a commercial real-estate company and left those amounts off the list of donations it released ahead of the November 15 election.” The coalition has since apologized for that lack of disclosure.
• The City of Oshawa is considering a staff recommendation to discontinue publication of a monthly report outlining payroll and vendor payments, according to the Oshawa Express. The newspaper also reports the city’s mayor frustrated a proposal to let the public know when Oshawa awards sole-sourced contracts.
• A Manning Foundation for Democratic Education report states “25% of Calgary City Council’s time is spent in secret and closed the public, up from 18.5% for the previous term.”
• Saskatoon residents will now know how their city councillors are voting. In the past, councillors needed to make a formal request for those votes to be written down. But now all of them will be recorded thanks to a motion made by local politician Randy Donauer.
• The Montreal Gazette reports the city is “on the hunt for an information-technology company that can help it create a new, searchable database of municipal contracts.”
• Kimberly Mayor Don McCormick hopes his new monthly brown bag lunches with the public will “eliminate the need for some of the Freedom of Information requests” his city has been dealing with, according to the city’s local newspaper.
• The Times & Transcript reports that, during a December 15 meeting, Moncton city councillors discussed an interim report on their efforts to “enhance democracy.” And, according to CBC News, information technology business owner Andrew MacKinnon made a presentation during the same meeting encouraging the city to open up its data.
• Summerside is looking to form an open government committee and a transparency committee. The Prince Edward Island city’s local newspaper reports the later committee will “study, review and make recommendations to council on ways to achieve more openness, accountability and transparency, and will consist of the city’s chief administrative officer, two councillors and two members of the public.”
• Maple Ridge is establishing a citizen’s committee on open government to develop recommendations for how the British Columbia city “can be more responsive and transparent to residents and other stakeholders.” According to the Maple Ridge News, “Once it starts to work, it will have a three-month time limit to bring recommendations.”
• The Flamborough Review reports Hamilton “staff and politicians will begin the interviewing process” for the Ontario city’s first combined lobbyist registrar and integrity commissioner “starting next February or March.”
• In a letter published in the Stoney Creek News, a Hamilton resident writes that the city’s freedom of information request process “required me to download and fill out a paper form, write a cheque to the city for $5, put a stamp on an envelope and mail it all to city hall. Much time and effort could be saved if this Freedom of Information transaction could have taken place online, like other electronic services available to residents, like dog tags.”
• In a letter published in the Hamilton Spectator, retired civic employee Shekar Chandrasekhar writes, “One can not get blood from a stone. Likewise, obtaining information from police services is next to impossible even though it is completely funded by the citizens of Hamilton.”
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.