SUNSHINE IN THE CITY? A decision to disclose the salaries of Saint John city employees has brought into relief some of cultural and legal limits to freedom of information in Canada.
Coun. Greg Norton had initially wanted to release the name, title, salary and other benefits — including overtime and severance payout — of each of those employees.
In response, city solicitor John Nugent advised the provincial Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act would only allow the municipality to publish an employee’s salary range.
But that wasn’t the only concern with Norton’s proposal.
The Telegraph-Journal reported Couns. Susan Fullerton and Donna Reardon were worried about the cost of such a sunshine list — an issue that was also raised by the federal government to oppose Liberal efforts to reform the Access to Information Act.
Reardon, according to the newspaper, also questioned whether there was a need for such information, since the city already discloses the total amount it spends on those salaries.
Moreover, the Telegraph-Journal quoted Fullerton as saying, “The citizens’ right to know battles with the citizens’ desire to know and we’ve got to figure what is a need to know and what is plain voyeurism.”
Such sentiments were even shared by Kurt Peacock, one of the newspaper’s columnist.
Peakock expressed support for the sunshine list but wrote “an inventory naming every single junior employee on the payroll just seems like too much information.”
He explained, “Nosey neighbours may find a complete employee list of salaries to be an exciting read, but I don’t think the taxpaying public needs to know just which administrative assistant makes $32,000 a year and which one makes $55,000.”
But what Fullerton and Peakcock don’t appear to fully appreciate is that information needs are often circumstantial, making it perilous to circumscribe the public’s right to know.
After all, a $23,000 difference in pay between administrative assistants could be an indication of favouritism or discrimination — an issue for public concern rather than just neighbourly nosiness.
Nevertheless, even if Saint John city councillors wanted to show that difference they couldn’t for legal reasons. And, in the end, Norton’s sunshine list was darkened, with the council unanimously agreeing to release a salary report similar to the one published by the New Brunswick government, which list salaries for employees making more than $60,000.
That provincial government report also lists those who received retirement allowances and severance payments worth more than $10,000. But, again, ranges for those payments are given rather than specific amounts.
OPENNESS IN DEFEAT Failed Non-Partisan Association mayor candidate Kirk LaPointe may have lost his bid to bring greater openness to Vancouver’s city hall. But Self-Counsel Press, the publishing company LaPointe leads, will be making governments across Canada more open to everyone.
In a tweet, Canadian Press’s Jim Bronskill announced Your Right to Know: How to Use the Law to Get Government Secrets — a book released by Self-Counsel — is “coming soon to bookstores.” Bronskill co-wrote the book with CBC News’s David McKie.
DEMAND CONTROL Earlier, I wrote about how a proposed Liberal fix to Canada’s broken access to information system would preserve most of the hiding spaces government uses to keep records from the public. But that’s not the only problem with party leader Justin Trudeau’s Transparency Act.
The Grits have touted the fact the bill would eliminate all access to information fees, except the $5 charge for filing a freedom of information request. That’s an unusual exception because only seven of the 13 provinces and territories currently have such an application charge. Moreover, according to the Centre for Law and Democracy, those fees “runs counter to international standards.”
So why keep it? Well, the centre has stated that “some in government view these fees as a way of deterring information requests,” with the Harper administration having proposed an abortive hike “in order to control demand.” But whether Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is of a similar mind remains to be seen.
• “Incoming Hamilton public school trustees are being asked to tape most of their closed-door meetings to ensure there’s no dispute about what was said and show they’ve got nothing to hide,” according to the Hamilton Mountain News.
• British Columbia’s information commissioner has backed the City of Abbotsford’s refusal to release the legal costs associated with removing a homeless camp. The province’s attorney general Suzanne Anton had earlier said she doesn’t think the public should have a right to know what lawyers working for the government are making.
• Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman has told the Vancouver Sun she’ll be “more proactive” about involving the community in government after her predecessor’s council was criticized for being too secretive.
• CBC News reports that legal experts say Alberta’s Law Enforcement Review Board is “ignoring both its mandate and a court ruling by refusing to release records which detail questionable actions taken by the province’s deputy attorney general.”
• The Chronicle Herald reports the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada has stated some police records about the 1990 death of a teenager following a police raid were destroyed. But when a request was filed for information about that statement, 414 of the 446 pages provided were completely blank.
• In a column on the Harper administration’s decision to ignore calls to reform the Access to Information Act, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist writes that if the Conservatives’ consultation on that issue has been “little more than theatre, claims of open government or open dialogue mean very little.”
Have a news tip about about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email me at this address.