Municipal Election 2014

Clark LRT Play Highlights Problems With FOI Process

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.

City of Hamilton's Secrecy Office and Clark FOI

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 CHML

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.

The FOI Process at City Hall

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.

Mayor's Office Release

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.

The Politics of the Release

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.

The City's Broken Information Practices

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.

The City's FOI office is broken, and is one of the worst in Canada. Year after year, it miserably fails the Newspapers Canada FOI audits.

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.

Let's Talk About Public Information Access

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.

First published on Joey Coleman's website. Licenced under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA.

Joey Coleman covers Hamilton Civic Affairs.

Read more of his work at The Public Record, or follow him on Twitter @JoeyColeman.


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By jason (registered) | Posted September 24, 2014 at 22:07:07

Maybe future mayors should hire staff who can clean filing cabinets and desks for them.....we weren't born yesterday.

By the way, if anyone wants to enjoy half an hour in the Bizarro World, listen to the rest of that clip. Wow. Amazing stuff. We shouldn't bother with lower city transit because we need more roads to Binbrook because we refuse to stop building subdivisions in Binbrook. We should rip up flower beds on Barton St because apparently traffic is like LA. (full disclosure, I live in Hamilton and have driven there thousands of time and don't think I've ever hit a red light, let alone seen congestion).

Only 'extremists' think the bus lane is worthwhile. After all, NYC doesn't use bus lanes. Their buses just doodle around various accidents and stalled cars.

Oops: Oops: Oops:

The sounds bites are endless. Def worth a visit. He also manages to slag Pittsburgh and Portland. Apparently all those international delegations and awards both cities have been winning really belong to Hamilton.


Comment edited by jason on 2014-09-24 22:14:15

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By bvbborussia (registered) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 07:48:00

Well you heard it here first, people love their cars and that's that. I wonder why Bob didn't move to shut down the HSR entirely, after all everyone has a two car driveway.

More roads, more cars. If they pollute don't worry because electric cars are on their way.

This man sounds stunningly unaware of the best practices around developing a liveable city.

Apart from his career in local radio what has qualified Bratina to run a billion dollar municipal corporation? If we as a city continue to elect people like this when we can continue to expect more of the same. Mediocre people of mediocre intelligence and ability will continue to produce a mediocre city.

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By Starbuck (registered) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 08:15:05

Aside from the speculation and innuendo, are you not curious regarding the content of said documents? Or have you completely thrown out, like the rest of the staff & friends at RTH, objectivity regarding LRT/BRT out the window?

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 26, 2014 at 07:39:47 in reply to Comment 104826

There's no new info. In case you've not been paying attention, the mayor and Clark have been making the rounds lying through their teeth. 1. They continue to refer to this Mac study as 'new info we never had before'. Umm as they've been reminded over and over, Mac first released the early version of that study 2-3 years ago. It was covered extensively here on RTH. 2. These so called secret documents again were part of the early discussion and merely tell us that BRT can in fact move large volumes of people. But not as many as LRT, and more costly to run, and a noisier, smellier, bumpier ride. Anyone who hears that and says "I'm sold on BRT!" is part of the problem why Hamilton has lagged for so long. No self respecting citizen or taxpayer should settle for bland mediocrity. Especially when all cities around us are fighting for transit dollars for LRT and associated services.

Heck, even Burlington is now prepping LRT plans as they see us possibly caving to the deadbeat squelchers once again and missing a massive investment in our future. They would LOVE to constrict the first LRT line in the Hamilton area.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 14:00:25 in reply to Comment 104826

Nothing in the letter tells us anything we don't already know. It doesn't move the debate forward. It just fools casual observers into thinking that the pro-LRT side has been hiding info. It's about muddying the waters and sowing doubts, and nothing more. Really, Clark and the sprawl machine need to come out and say that BRT is just a smoke-screen. They really don't want to see public investment directed toward encouraging intensification along the King and Main corridor, and would prefer the money be used to fund Aerotropolis and the Mid-Pen highway, etc. Sideshow Bob was pretty clear about his vision for Hamilton's future ... two cars for every home and going back to the glory days of the industrial past. The rest of his comments are filled with straw-men. Who are the "extremists" advocating a shopping mall with 14k/year jobs on the Stelco lands?

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By bvbborussia (registered) | Posted September 26, 2014 at 09:32:41 in reply to Comment 104849

People like Bratina have a hard time accepting that Hamilton needs to move away from its industrial past toward a new knowledge based economy because of their own inferiority complexes. We're allowing this city to be run by people with no higher education or experience managing and running large organizations.

These individuals are fearful of the new economy because they know it would leave them behind. They don't understand it, have never lived it and are distrustful overall. A person like Bratina has no business running a city and plotting its long-term future. It is outstanding that National Steel Car has hired 400 new employees but if he believes that type of job and economy is the future of Hamilton then he is sorely mistaken.

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By redmike (registered) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 11:33:28 in reply to Comment 104826

anti lrt docs that the outgoing anti lrt mayor left behind for the anti lrt candidate are to be treated with objectivity? as the kids say, whatever.

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By Very insightful! (anonymous) | Posted October 01, 2014 at 05:59:48 in reply to Comment 104842

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 25, 2014 at 09:53:52 in reply to Comment 104826

The documents said what we already know - that BRT (which isn't what Clark is planning on building anyways) does a perfectly fine job at moving people about, but LRT will actually improve the city economically.

It was thoroughly unremarkable. CHML and Clark are playing it as some horrifying revelation, when it's painfully obvious: Yes buses work just fine at physically moving people from point A to point B.

It's just that nobody with any better alternative ever wants to use a bus, because they suck. If you want to make a system that actually expands ridership and attracts investment? Yes, you should build LRT.

it's not exactly the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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By AlHuizenga (registered) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 09:47:44 in reply to Comment 104826

Nope, not curious at all. And that's because of my objectivity - the whole event is objectively ludicrous. "Oh, hey, look, a top secret memo that proves beyond a doubt that BRT is really best for the city after all! Sure wish I'd found this four years ago! Here you go, Brad!" The contempt with which Bratina and Clark are treating the citizens of Hamilton is breathtaking.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 08:50:08 in reply to Comment 104826

To quote Andrew Dreschel, "there doesn't appear to be a smoking gun, at least not anything that would have changed the debate or council's position." If there was muck to turn over, the Spec's resident muckraker would have turned it over. There's nothing to see here but Brad Clark being Brad Clark.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 14:03:31

I think this is fairly typical small-town politics. It's a tough pill to swallow because we like to think of Hamilton as being a big league city when it's just not there yet. Nothing illegal was done. We know Bratina does not support LRT so he's supporting a candidate that may do away with it. The fact that he said he found these documents in a drawer in his office is just another cringe-worthy footnote on his bizarre political history. (BTW I noticed a typo, 'choose' should be 'chose')

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By Advocate (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 15:04:57

Ooops I posted this comment on a different thread. I apologize. Here is the comment:

oey, the fact that you received FOI information surreptitiously doesn't make it right.The Freedom of Information office is to enforce the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act or FIPPA, for short. FIPPA has two sides to it: the access to info side and the protection of privacy side. The office is set up to ensure that both sides of that equation are satisfied. By having Bratina or other councillors 'release' non public info willy-nilly might satisfy the hungry media hordes, but not necessarily the best interests of the community. The city has been sued when info was released inapprpriately. I am not saying this was the case in this instance. However, the office is responsible for vetting the info to make sure everyone is covered. Bratina is being political and he tried to damage Fred. The reality is that Bob is so damaged that he is not taken seriously. Is the memo worthwhile? I don't know. I haven't seen it. Is there spin on all sides of this old memo? You bet. It is political season after all. Was Clark misrepresenting the truth when he said how he got the memo? Seems so. However, the important question here is that the city's interests are never served when the mayor doesn't follow procedure. That is for sure, no???

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By samson (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 15:48:45 in reply to Comment 104857

the fact that you looked up the name of the Act is commendable, though I think technically you got it wrong (see: Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act). You should have gone further and read a few of its provisions and you would have found that the reasons to refuse a request are pretty clear and do not require 30 days and should not cost an extra red dime.

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By Advocate (anonymous) | Posted September 25, 2014 at 16:43:57 in reply to Comment 104858

Ok. So, it is MFIPPA. The point remains. There is a process. Follow it. And I'm talking about the Mayor here. The fact that the office rags the puck on requests or charges money is extraneous to the purpose of the Act. I don't think the legislation envisioned lethargic enforcement. Nor did it permit careless treatment of the privacy function. Bratina's rash and politically driven action is as negligent as his 'found it in a drawer after four years' rationale is lame.

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