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In Ontario Goverment Everything is Secret
March 9, 2007 permalink
An article by James Wallace of Osprey Media displays the kind of investigative journalism normally only seen in the American press. Ontario's government agencies at all levels deny requests for information from the public, even routine requests. Freedom of information requests are stymied with legal exceptions. The experience of Dufferin VOCA is similar. Inquiries are commonly met with "that's confidential". In the case of a request to a children's aid society, they say nothing, or answer with "we don't supply that information".
James Wallace, Friday, March 09, 2007 - Queens Park - Osprey News Network
Public routinely kept in dark, Osprey survey shows
Secrecy, stone-walling, manipulation and ignorance within Ontario institutions is undermining fundamental public rights to hold government accountable, a four-month survey by Osprey Media newspapers has found.
In many cases, municipalities, police forces, hospitals, universities and provincial bodies supported by taxpayer dollars routinely deny, reject, delay or challenge requests for information that should be public and easily accessible.
For example, police in Cornwall refused to identify a high school that had been vandalized by two teens on the grounds the school was “like a victim” and police are not required to identify victims of crime.
Such concerns are familiar to Brian Beamish, Assistant Commissioner Access at Ontario’s Office of Information and Privacy.
Beamish said the findings of the Osprey survey come as no surprise to him and called on public institutions across the province to “embrace the spirit of openness” contained within Ontario’s Freedom of Information Act.
“There are definitely situations described (in the Osprey survey) where out expectation would be that information would be disclosed even without the need for a formal FOI request,” Beamish said.
“They seem quite clear these are situations where information should be made freely available to the public as a matter of course,” he said.
Premier Dalton McGuinty also expressed concern at the failure of some public institutions to readily release information to the public and told Osprey News he’ll consider bringing hospitals, which are currently exempt from FOI legislation, under the umbrella of the law.
“The message I want to send to everybody who falls under the gambit of our freedom of information legislation is that it actually at the end of the day strengthens us,” McGuinty said.
“When we make ourselves more transparent we end up being more accountable and that inspires more confidence on the part of the public,” he said.
Ontario’s opposition politicians said the Premier should practice what he preaches.
Both Conservative leader John Tory and NDP leader Howard Hampton, accused the Liberals of using delays and denials and outright manipulation to frustrate information requests they make to the province.
Conservative requests for one cabinet minister’s expenses were delayed for almost a year while the NDP has all but “given up” making FOI requests.
“It is part of a pattern of stonewalling and manipulation of these requests that’s going on I think routinely throughout the McGuinty government,” Tory said.
Tory called for “a full-scale review of the act and how it operates” including a review of fees for information, broader disclosure of government contracts and greater use of the internet to routinely post expenses and other public information.
“The system is not working,” Tory said. “This kind of stonewalling, this kind of abuse of practice is making a farce of the system.”
The right of the public to scrutinize government is one of the cornerstones of Canada’s democracy.
Our political leaders and bureaucrats are held accountable not only by Opposition politicians and public watchdogs but by citizens themselves and the media.
Scrutiny is the price tag that goes along with public funding for public programs and services.
“It’s important so that people have knowledge of what’s going on in their community and they can make decisions, everything from whether to move into an area based on the crime rate or what school their kids should go to because of class sizes,” said Lou Clancy, vice-president editorial for Osprey Media.
“This is basic information that should be available to all,” Clancy said.
However, the Osprey survey found basic information ranging from sewage discharges to audit reports and even local workforce data are routinely denied.
Key findings of the four-month survey include:
- Information requests for routine information by citizens and journalists are frequently denied or fought by a broad range of public bodies;
- Ontario’s FOI laws are often misused to deny information requests and some institutions including police routinely and abusively use special circumstance exemptions as a broad shield to fight requests;
- Officials at many provincial agencies are either ignorant of their FOI responsibilities or show an alarming lack of respect to the process and applicants seeking information.
Some examples from Osprey survey
The four month Osprey survey of Ontario public institutions found numerous examples of public agencies that routinely deny, restrict or block access to public information. Examples that raised concerns include:
- A Peterborough Crown refused to reveal why assault charges were withdrawn against a prominent county warden and township reeve in exchange for a peace bond;
- Five doctors resigned their privileges from the Sarnia’s Bluewater Health. The hospital administration refused to reveal their identities despite potential impact on patient care;
- A retired separate school principal in Sault Ste. Marie is investigated by the police for alleged theft of money to feed a gambling habit. The school board refuses any comment saying it’s a personnel matter;
- The Niagara Region social services office moves from downtown St. Catharines to a site on the edge of the city. The department director tells the Standard the lease is cheaper, but refused to reveal by how much;
- The Kingston Whig Standard requested a copy of an audit of the local District Immigrant Services office after its president was forced to step down and the agency had all its federal funding pulled. An FOI was filed but the paper was asked to pay a $1,000 bill for the information it wanted;
- At the first board meeting of the Erie St. Clair Local Health Integration Network in November, a Chatham reporter requested information on the board’s proposed Integrated Health Service Plan, basically the blue print that would be used to manage health care in the region. The information was denied;
- Trent University refused to make public any details about a lease deal it made to build a generating station on public land with a private company on the grounds it was protecting the interests of the company. An FOI request was denied;
- Collingwood police refused to identify a Stayner man charged with child pornography and would give no explanation for keeping his identity secret;
- The Fort Erie Times faced ongoing delays after requesting information on sewage discharges following a snowstorm. The paper was forced to file an FOI to get the information;
- Queens University refused to reveal what type of animals it uses in lab for fear of public backlash;
- Northumberland OPP refused to reveal the name of a taxi company raided in a drug bust and accused of having its drivers pedal drugs to fares;
- A Peterborough Catholic school board met in a closed session to discuss fair play policy and hear public complaints about coaches not playing students fairly on the grounds it was a “personnel” issue;
- Niagara city hall released expenses for city councillors but refused to do the same for department heads. The city insisted the Review file an FOI request but warned the paper would incur substantial charges;
- Ontario’s Ministry of Labour investigated the death of an employee from a Milton-based company at a local lumber store but wouldn’t reveal who died;
- Petrolia council is repeatedly secretive about details surrounding a major oil spill, renovation work at the arena, its community centre and the dropping of the YMCA as manager of the community centre;
- A Brantford-area woman requested a copy of the bylaws for her local hospital, the Willet, which is merging with another facility' but was told she couldn’t have them;
- The Peterborough police commission refused to name a board member who was the subject of a complaint. It turned out it was a city councillor;
- Brock University denied a request for a copy of a study on student cheating on campus. A professor provided some information but a reporter ended up getting a copy online;
- Police and school board officials in Kingston refused to release details surrounding the death of an eight-year-old boy at a local school. No details are forthcoming until the Whig Standard wrote an editorial demanding answers into the tragedy.
Ed Arnold, managing editor of the Peterborough Examiner, said public scrutiny of public spending, programs and services are critically important to the public interest and answer basic questions such as Why are taxes going up? Where do public dollars go? Have public officials misused public funds or lined their own pockets at public expense?
Questions ranging from how long it takes an ambulance to show up at your front door if needed to the results of public health inspections on local restaurants all depend upon the free flow of information from government to the public, Arnold said.
And it is also information the public is entitled to know, he said.
“It's your money, your government, your business and any boss worth their weight is going to expect to be able to have information that he owns easily available to him or her,” Arnold said.
“When they refuse the media information or make it difficult to get information, they are refusing to tell the reader, the taxpayer, the public,” he said. “They are refusing to give it to the people they serve...their bosses.”
“The question all of us should ask is why?” he said. “We paid for it, we own it. Let us see it.”
Instead, the Osprey survey found numerous examples of cases where bureaucrats denied information, delayed its release or didn’t believe they had an obligation to release information.
Examples of questionable practices found in the survey ranged from a refusal by Niagara municipal officials to release bureaucrat expenses to the refusal by police and school board officials in Kingston to offer any explanation into the death of an eight-year-old boy at a local school.
Beamish, who hears appeals on Freedom of Information requests that are fought by public bodies, said there’s a real discrepancy across the province in how various agencies and institutions handle FOI issues.
“Part of that may be the fact at the municipal level you’ve got literally hundreds of these offices,” Beamish said. “You’ve got municipal corporations, police services boards, school boards, the whole gamut.”
“Some are quite good at providing information on request but I think it’s also fair to say some really haven’t embraced the spirit of openness that’s described in the act and not only do not make information available, but when faced with a formal FOI request rely on exemptions they shouldn’t be relying on,” he said.
Beamish has recently grown concerned about the failure of public institutions to release information on public contracts.
Tens of billions of dollars in public funds are awarded annually in this province by public institutions that refuse to release information about the contracts and even contribute to secrecy by agreeing to keep contract details private.
British Columbia and New York State, to cite two examples, post details of public contracts on websites but companies in Ontario commonly enter the contracting process with an expectation of confidentiality.
“The government could probably clarify that with a stroke of a pen and simply say if you want to bid on a government contract and you are the successful bidder, you should not expect any confidentiality in fact just the opposite,” Beamish said.
“Our point is there needs to be accountability for public expenditures and that includes disclosure of contracts and financial details of government contracts for goods and services,” he said.
“I don’t know how you can have accountability for government expenditures if people can’t examine what those expenditures are and who’s receiving them.”
Expense accounts are another area where information requests are routinely fought, he’s found.
Recent revelations of abuses at Hydro One, provincial Children’s Aid Societies and some school boards underscore the need for scrutiny.
“I think the sophisticated institutions understand they need to be accountable for expense account expenditures,” Beamish said.
“That message may not have gotten down to some of the smaller institutions and the ones that don’t get (information requests) on a regular basis.”
Ontario’s Liberal government, meanwhile, has expanded FOI legislation to include universities, given the provincial auditor authority to review municipal and school board spending and significantly reduced response times for FOI request.
McGuinty, who personally appealed in a June 2004 letter to provincial bureaucrats to “strive to provide a more open and transparent government,” acknowledged compliance isn’t as good as he’d like.
“I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made and there’s more to be done,” he told Osprey News.
“We just have to achieve a greater penetration in terms of a level understanding and a level commitment on the part of all these persons working in public bodies and public agencies,” he said.
*James Wallace is Queen’s Park bureau chief for Osprey Media. Contact the writer at www.ospreymedia.ca
Source: Osprey Media
Secrecy subverts Ontario's FOI laws, opposition says.
Saturday, March 10, 2007 -
Queens Park - Ontario's opposition leaders are calling for change to this province's Freedom of Information laws and practices.
So frustrated, have the NDP grown with repeated, fruitless attempts to obtain documents to help them scrutinize the current Liberal government and its programs that their leader, Howard Hampton, says his party has "all but given up" filing information requests.
John Tory, the Conservative leader, not only believes there is direct, willful "political manipulation" of Opposition information requests by the government but even that provincial officials routinely violate freedom of information laws to shield information that might embarrass the government. The current system, Tory insists, is a "farce" and needs to be overhauled. They are serious allegations. Routine requests for information from the Opposition have taken as long as a year to process and requested documents are commonly denied, editedor blacked out. "I even complained to the province's information and privacy commissioner earlier this year that I felt politically sensitive requests were being handled differently than other kinds of requests," Tory told Osprey News.
Here's an example. In June 2005 Conservative researchers asked for the cell phone bills of then Transportation Minister Harinder Takhar and his staff. Takhar had been accused of violating cabinet rules that require ministers to put business assets into a blind trust and strictly forbids them from being actively involved with their business. The Opposition suspected that if Takhar in fact was breaking the rules his cell phone bills would implicate him. And if that was the case, it would almost certainly cost Takhar his portfolio and embarrass the government.
It should have been a simple matter to obtain and release the cell bills. Instead, the government imposed a $29,193 bill to process the request and delayed delivering the information for a year. Email correspondence subsequently obtained by the Conservatives suggests government civil servants and the minister's political staff collaborated on what information should be released. That, certainly, is Tory's view. In one email, the ministry FOI officer asks for direction on how to respond to potential questions on why the minister's office spent $23,293.70 on cell phone and blackberry bills over 20 months and why so much information was being "protected" from release. "If I could get the 'spin' on these issues today, that would be great," the bureaucrat wrote in an August 2005 email. When the cell bills were released a year later, vast portions detailing phone numbers were blacked out, either to "protect the personal privacy" of individuals who called the minister or to protect the "economic and other interests of Ontario." In any event, the attempt to shine light on the minister's activities was thwarted. Takhar, in the meantime, stopped using a government phone.
The NDP has had similar experiences. Hampton tried to find out how the government calculated its $1.5 billion projected cost for hydro consumers to switch over to smart meters. The actual cost, private sector experts told Hampton, would be double or triple that amount. "When you try to get information on costs, they just refuse to answer," he said.
The situation is not entirely black and white.
Ministry response times to FOI requests have improved under the Liberals and were problematic under both the former Conservative and NDP governments. Premier Dalton McGuinty has also personally written public servants and asked them to disclose information "unless there is a clear and compelling reason not to do so." The Premier's office declined to comment on the specific allegations raised by the opposition.
Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence to suggest secrecy and manipulation are widespread within government. During a four-month survey of Ontario's public institutions, Osprey Media newspapers found a culture of secrecy permeates many publicly-funded bodies in this province. In a story published this week, Osprey journalists found politicians and civil servants routinely subvert freedom of information laws, resort to stone-walling and manipulation or are outright ignorant of their obligation to disclose information collected on behalf of and in the service of the public.
Change is needed.
"I've long been an advocate of what Sweden does," Hampton said. "There everything is public and the onus is on government to say why information should be kept secret."
Tory has similar views and wants government information, including contracts, posted on the internet. "In Ottawa, they have a system in place now and have had for several years where ministerial expense accounts are posted on the internet 30 days after their paid," he said.
The Ontario government spends $80 billion of your dollars annually.
With an election coming this fall, government secrecy may not make it on the list of top voter concerns. It is and should be, however, one of the most compelling concerns on your list when MPPs next ask for your vote.
James Wallace is Queens Park bureau chief for Osprey Media. Contact the writer at www.ospreymedia.ca .
Source: Osprey Media