Politics

A Culture of Secrecy

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 20, 2006

(This blog entry has been updated)

Once again, Hamilton's public health department has chosen secrecy as its default position in a public health matter.

After a summer scandal when the health department failed to advise city council or the public about a downtown legionnaire's outbreak, the same department is now under fire for failing to notify the public of a "flu-like outbreak" among diners at The Piazza.

Raise the Hammer's Trevor Shaw broke the story on November 18, and today's Hamilton Spectator carries two related articles: one providing details on the incident, and the other investigating why public health did not report it.

The reporter, Dana Brown, writes:

Public health officials say it was not necessary to notify the community of a flu-like outbreak stemming from a city banquet hall because the situation was contained and under control.

In other words, don't inform the public unless we have to. This is the same attitude public health took in the summer.

Openness and accountability demands the opposite position: inform the public unless there is a compelling reason not to do so. The new city council should make it a priority to transform the culture of secrecy at public health.

Update: This blog entry originally identified the business as "Carmen's banquet hall". The correct name is "Carmen's Piazza". -Ed.

Update 2: In fact, the business is actually called "The Piazza", not "Carmen's Piazza". The two businesses are not affiliated. -Ed.

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 A Robot (anonymous) | Posted November 20, 2006 at 21:43:14

Don't waste your time on this. It's apples to oranges when put beside the legionnaire's issue. They didn't need to warn the public because this time it really was under control... the kitchen was shut down. The news broke shortly afterward.

The legionnaire's was known to be in the downtown area for weeks before word escaped.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 21, 2006 at 08:48:39

Hi A Robot,

Of course you're right in pointing out that the situations are very different. What's the same is the sense that the public doesn't need to know. That habit of defaulting to secrecy seems to be a part of the Public Health mindset.

I worry that unless that mindset changes for both large and small matters, they'll be more likely to keep a lid on the next significant public health crisis instead of respecting the public's right to know by reporting early and reporting often.

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By A Robot (anonymous) | Posted November 21, 2006 at 22:15:50

It was likely to avoid liability in the event that Carmen's sees it as a form of defamation. Best to let them to destroy their own image.

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By carstar (anonymous) | Posted November 22, 2006 at 09:33:46

The point your making is that it was 'under control'. There were still too many unknowns for Public Health to make that call. By their own admission they said they 'thought it was a virus'. That doesn't sound like a 'controlled situation'. Unless they know for sure, it could've been something far worse, and therefore were complicit inspreading the illness.

Wouldn't you prefer that our own Public Health erred on the side of Public Safety rather then Corporate Profitability?

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