The two efforts to improve government transparency you may not have heard about
As B.C. reporters ignore an FOI reform bill, a small Ontario cottage town is making its government emails public.
Greater access to government records is in the self-interest of journalists. But in British Columbia, that self-interest resulted in few, if any, stories about a recent opposition proposal to reform the province’s freedom-of-information law.
Like its federal cousin, this law is in urgent need of reform. Reporters in this province are finding it evermore difficult to obtain government records and, by extension, hold politicians and public institutions to account.
So it should have been welcome news last week when the B.C. NDP introduced a bill that would require government to do everything from document its decisions to routinely disclose executive calendars.
As an example of why those reforms are needed, Doug Routley—the MLA responsible for that legislation—told me one of his colleagues recently filed an FOI request about government consultations to improve Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears.
But that request turned up no records, something that “crashes the border of ridiculousness,” Routley said.
As I’ve written before, it should be noted that there’s almost no chance of his bill becoming law since the BC Liberals control the legislature.
Even if the New Democrats were to wrest away that control in 2017 and pass similar legislation, its likely their government would eventually become just as secretive as the one they replaced. Such is the nature of Canadian politics.
Still, there’s value in journalists covering the opposition’s proposed reforms, because such stories help inform the public about the flaws in British Columbia’s freedom-of-information system.
But a search of the Canadian Newsstand database and Google News turns up no stories about those reforms.
By comparison, when federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced a much weaker freedom-of-information initiative, he nabbed at least five stories about that proposal—including an editorial from the Globe and Mail endorsing it.
Asked about the apparent lack of coverage regarding his own propositions, Routley deadpanned: “How nice of you to point that out,” theorizing reporters might not have had time last week to cover his bill.
In practice and in law, Canadian politicians and their staffers often appear to want to hide their communications from the public.
Indeed, in a tweet earlier this month, Scott Reid—who served as former Prime Minister Paul Martin’s communications director—stated, “Everyone at every level of government, in every party uses private email,” reflecting a natural desire to “discuss stuff bluntly.”
But the councillors of a small Ontario cottage country town may be trying to restrain that desire.
Under provincial law, council meetings must, except under limited circumstances, be open to the public.
And now the township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands has passed a bylaw stating those meetings “may include email exchanges” that are “addressed to all members of council” and “contain factual information germane to the business of the Municipality.”
In an interview, Mayor Joe Baptista said that, as a result, “all of our township emails and anything to do with township business that we are discussing” will be “compiled and made available to the public prior to council meeting.”
That news was first reported by the Gananoque Reporter.
Baptista said the details of how that compilation happens are still being worked out.
But he said he wants to see it “as automated as possible because I don’t want it to become an administration nightmare. And, from our perspective, if your corresponding with staff regarding council issues or if you’re corresponding amongst each other you don’t get to choose” which emails become public.
Baptista said he hasn’t heard of any other municipalities doing the same thing, although a number of mayors have already phoned asking about the bylaw.
“In some ways we’re the guinea pigs,” he added. “We’re going to learn, we’re going to put this into play and we’re going to see how it works.”[node:related]
FOI NEWS: FEDERAL
• The Toronto Star’s Alex Boutilier tweets that, in response to a freedom-of-information request filed with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, he received a “copy of the releasable material”—an empty envelope.
• The Canadian Press’s Steve Rennie tweets that he just got back an access-to-information request response “about how to deal with surges in access requests. But their advice is (surprise) blanked out.”
• The Tyee reports on a dearth of information about what half of Canada’s temporary foreign workers actually do.
• The Huffington Post reports on an “ongoing tug-of-war between realtors and customers who want to be able to access in-depth real estate data online, and the country’s industry associations, who want to maintain their monopoly on that data.”
• “The Canadian Forces has retreated in its attempt to put a cloak of secrecy over its response to concerns raised by a special commission looking into the suicide of an Afghan veteran,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.
FOI NEWS: PROVINCIAL
• “Amazing.” That was the reaction from James McLeod, a political reporter with the Telegram, when Newfoundland and Labrador’s finance department returned the $5 application fee he had paid to file an access request. The province’s government recently announced it would be implementing the recommendations of an independent review of its freedom-of-information legislation, which include eliminating that fee.
• The Tyee reports that, thanks to a ruling by an adjudicator working for British Columbia’s information commissioner, the public may soon get a chance to see the BC Lions’ contract to play at BC Place Stadium.
• According to InfoTel News, a survey of journalists by British Columbia’s Interior Health Authority found just 36.2 per cent of respondents were satisfied with using spokespeople for comment, while just 40 per cent would accept a written statement rather than wait for a live interview.
• The Chronicle Herald reports Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil has resisted calls by Catherine Tully, that province’s freedom of information and protection of privacy review officer, to increase the independence of her post. And now the newspaper has learned McNeil’s government is considering merging her office with that of the province’s ombudsman.
• The Montreal Gazette reports a new position at Quebec’s health establishments—which combines the roles of a human resources, legal affairs and communications director—could put transparency at risk. That’s because, according to a spokesperson for one Montreal hospital, “public-relations staff often struggle to get information out to the public over the objections of the legal affairs department.”
• The Toronto Star reports, “A privacy analyst at Trillium Health Centre is being investigated by Ontario’s privacy commissioner and his own hospital over allegations he tried to block a probe by the provincial watchdog into a privacy breach.”
FOI NEWS: LOCAL
• CBC News paraphrases Harout Chitilian, the vice-president of Montreal’s executive committee, as saying, “Montreal is looking to change the rules and regulations in order to release more of the city’s data.” But “In some cases, that could mean changing laws and taking away privacy safeguards.”
Sean Holman writes The Unknowable Country column, which looks at politics, democracy and journalism. He is a journalism professor at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, an award-winning investigative reporter and director of the documentary Whipped: the secret world of party discipline. Have a news tip about the state of democracy, openness and accountability in Canada? You can email him at this address.
Photo by WriterGal39, via Flickr.