Brad Clark's LRT Freedom of Information request process points to the need for serious FOI reform at City Hall.
By Joey Coleman
Published September 25, 2014
This week, Mayoral candidate Brad Clark provided Hamilton Spectator columnist Andrew Dreschel with a memo written for Mayor Fred Eisenberger in 2010 regarding the Light Rail Transit project.
While the memo is interesting, on a scale of newsworthiness it doesn't rate very high. It's smart politics by the Clark campaign to keep LRT as the sole issue to use as a wedge.
However, this post is going to focus on the process of releasing the memo.
Officially, the City's Freedom of Information Office is called the "Freedom of Information Office".
In reality, it is the City's primary unit responsible for obfuscating and frustrating public attempts to gain access to information.
The most simple request - say, for Councillor expenses - take months to process and involves hundreds of dollars in user fees.
So, how does Brad Clark in his capacity as a mayoral candidate file a freedom of information request on September 3 and be able to release it to the Spectator less than three weeks later?
The answer: Mayor Bratina's Office.
Mayor Bratina's comments on AM 900 CHML this morning were odd and very concerning. Skip ahead to the 29:30 minute mark.
Bratina claims he was doing some office cleaning, found a cabinet with very little in it, and discovered the memo Clark was looking for.
Bratina continued, stating that he wished he found the memo three years ago, claiming it indicated that BRT is a better investment than LRT.
The Mayor's statements are very troubling, as it appears he may have selectively released the memo for political reasons. The idea that he suddenly found this memo really stretches belief.
But for the purpose of assuming good faith, let's put aside the Mayor's comments on the radio this morning.
When a Freedom of Information request is received by the City, staff send the request onwards to the department holding the record. In the case of this file, that's the Mayor's Office.
The applicable department then searches for the file. When found, they are instructed to give the file to the Freedom of Information Office.
The FOI office then sits on the file until the 30 day mark, even for a simple request, and determines the maximum fee it can charge for releasing the document. The goal seems to be to discourage future requests for public information.
In this case, the Mayor's Office chose to give the information directly to Clark.
It is not unheard of for the Mayor's Office and some members of Council to release documents directly to Freedom of Information applicants.
I've personally received documents from Councillors and the Mayor's Office after filing FOI requests, bypassing the City's Freedom of Information Office.
There is no requirement in law for the City of Hamilton to withhold public information from the public, except when there are privacy reasons for doing so. In the case of this memo, there were no privacy considerations.
By giving the documents directly to the requestor and bypassing the FOI office, the Mayor or councillor save an applicant hundreds of dollars. That is to say nothing of the frustration and time required dealing with the FOI office.
Mayor Bratina's Chief of Staff, Peggy Chapman, states that they gave the document directly to Brad Clark, as they've done with other FOI requests this term.
I can confirm that I've received FOI'd documents from the Mayor's Office in a similar fashion in the past.
This particular FOI request was extremely political. Clark knew what memo he was seeking, and Bratina's Office knew exactly why Clark was seeking it.
Bratina insists he was not endorsing or looking to support the Clark campaign by releasing the information, citing his past practice of releasing documents without charge when requested via FOI.
Chapman states that these releases save all parties involved time and expense by not adding to the workload of the FOI office.
However, the politics and timing of this are suspicious.
What it really boils down to is this: the City of Hamilton's culture of secrecy is the problem.
This memo wouldn't be causing any discussion in 2014 - four years after it was written - if the City had a policy of proactive disclosure of information not covered by privacy or legal protections.
This year, the City's FOI office was so dismal that it didn't even earn an "F" level failure. According to the Audit, "Due to the ambiguous nature of some of its disclosure decisions, Hamilton is not graded in this audit."
Yes, F is for Failure and H is for Hamilton.
Rapid Transit is an important topic that we should be discussing during our election period. We should also be talking about City Hall's toxic culture.
That toxic culture includes the secrecy that guides all dialogue at City Hall.
I'm interested to hear how candidates will make it such that every simple FOI request - similar to the Clark's campaign - gets the same quick response.
In terms of the matter at hand, the whole thing stinks and only adds to the cynicism that infects public perception of politics, encouraging disengagement and our low voter turnout.
You must be logged in to comment.