Municipal Election 2006

Earth to Politicians: Secrecy Doesn't Work

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 26, 2006

As the political drama swirls around who knew what about this summer's legionella outbreak, let us stop for a minute and ask: why on earth do politicians keep trying to hide this stuff? Don't they ever learn?

According to the Hamilton Spectator, Mayor Larry "Ethics and Integrity" Di Ianni was briefed in late July about the outbreak but decided not to share this information with the public.

According to Spec reporter Nicole McIntyre, Di Ianni learned that there was a spike in legionella infections, but did not follow up with staff at the medical office of health.

The rest of City Council learned about the outbreak last Monday during an in camera council meeting. Some councillors asked why the information was not being made public, but council did not vote to release the information.

Now, some councillors are trying to distance themselves from that decision and pass the buck. As Councillor Terry Whitehead explained, "we felt we were being boxed in by staff." Staff at the medical office of health claim they did not go public because they were still investigating what caused the outbreak.

If an anonymous source at the city had not leaked the information to McIntyre, we would still not know about it.

This is outrageous. The medical office of health seems to be totally ineffectual, and our elected politicians seem unwilling to treat their electors with enough respect to share critical public health information.

Did they really think they would be able to keep a lid on this? Again and again, politicians try to keep the public in the dark on politically embarrassing matters, only to be exposed once the truth inevitably emerges.

The lure of secrecy is a political will-o-the-wisp, perpetually leading politicians astray with the promise of an escape from accountability. It's a false promise.

Ironically, last Wednesday, before the outbreak was leaked to the Spec, Di Ianni released a five point re-election plan in which "community safety" was his number one priority.

He said the city needs to "reassure people that in fact Hamilton is a safe community, that all the neighbourhoods are safe."

What we need is a little less "reassurance" and a lot more honesty.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted September 26, 2006 at 14:35:52

This is unconscionable. DiIanni should have immediately taken steps to inform council and the public, as well as get to the bottom of the issue. Not wanting to alarm the public is no excuse: the public needs this information so we can make up our own minds about whether or not to be alarmed.

For all we know, the woman who tragically died of this disease was the type of person who was extremely cautious about her health and would have stayed clear of downtown had she received word of the outbreak. She would have been sensible to do so.

My thoughts are with her family for their loss.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 26, 2006 at 14:58:42

According to the Spec:

"Dr. Matthew Hodge, the city's associate medical officer of health, says public health warned doctors as soon as possible after establishing there was a problem. He doubts an earlier warning could have saved Wilson's life, noting her doctors ordered the legionella test anyway and were already treating her with antibiotics."

http://www.hamiltonspectator.com/NASApp/...

Well, maybe. In this case, it depends on when the city became aware of the problem, compared to when Barbara Wilson went downtown and contracted the disease. This is not clear from any of the reports I've read.

To be fair, there has to be evidence of an outbreak - i.e. people getting sick - before public health officials can decide that there's an outbreak.

However, as soon as they establish this, they need to make that information public immediately, if only to reduce additional infections by alerting people to the risk.

This can also speed up the investigation, because more information is available to the investigators from other involved parties - not only from people who might otherwise go undiagnosed, but also from local residents and businesses who may notice evidence they can share.

If the information was, in fact, kept secret to avoid a panic that would hurt downtown business, then the cover-up and subsequent exposure will have the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of finding the problem early and correcting it, which would increase public confidence, now people will wonder if they can even trust the government to warn them of health risks.

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By Kevin_ (anonymous) | Posted September 26, 2006 at 15:44:58

Typically it's public health officials who decied when it's necessary to release health advisories, not politicians. That's how it should be.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 29, 2006 at 14:59:04

Today's Hamilton Spectator (Friday, September 29, 2006) has a great editorial on the legionella outbreak and the government's response:

"Since the outbreak was over by the time legionnaires' was identified, he said, the public could not do anything useful with the information.

"That all-too-common attitude - that information should be kept from the public unless there is a good reason - must change. ...

"This culture of withholding information is fundamentally flawed. The starting point should be that information should be made public unless a convincing argument can be made for not doing so."

http://www.hamiltonspectator.com/NASApp/...

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By Moi (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2006 at 15:30:31

Maybe it's just me, but I've always felt you had to look at the periphery of most Spectator articles, the underlying assumptions in the reports and the sources they interview, to fully grasp the implications of any issue reported.

In this case, I was surprised to learn that there were about a half dozen cases of legionaires' disease reported in this city each year, with an unknown number of unreported cases. I was further surprised to learn that the suspicion of many unreported cases led health officials in the province to speculate that statistical spikes in cases tracked might be the result of improved reporting rather than increased outbreaks, and therefore of little concern, to them at least.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised then, that the province had no cleaning and maintenance standards for the large, water-tower air-conditioning units that are a known source for such outbreaks, nor apparently any interest in setting such standards despite the fact that number of cases of legionaires' disease seems to have doubled in the province this past year, as it roughly did in the city.

And I suppose I shouldn't have been as surprised as I was to discover that, though such large air-conditioning equipment has long been known to cause about a half-dozen cases of legionaires' disease each year, the city's health department didn't know where all such equipment in the city was located. They climbed to the roof of Stelco Tower for a visual survey only after it was determined there was a spike in the numbers, and still hadn't located the specific location of the source at the time of the Spectator report.

Me, I'm still curious as to why it is okay to have even five cases reported each year, and that's not a cause for public concern or action. There may be a good reason, but I haven't seen that reported yet.

I wasn't surprised the spike in cases was not reported as it occured. That might have frightened suburbanites from visiting the city centre. This city's administration is still convinced that the downtown will be revived by encouraging people who hate going downtown, to go downtown, rather than openly maintaining safety standards for the people who like or need to live and work in a large urban centre. We can see a parallel in the failure to provide the Beasley neighbourhood with decent parks, recreation centres and social services that are known to reduce crime, while promising increased policing on nearby downtown streets where it's hoped more visitors will tread.

All this suggests to me that the current city administration either doesn't know how to support community development, or they're trying to do it on the cheap having already blown the big bucks on an east-end expressway. But maybe that's just me.

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