City Clerk responds to questions about FOI audit. (Follow-up to: You don't have a right to know)

Yesterday, in a post entitled “You don’t have a right to know”, I wrote about how the City of Hamilton responded to questions from the Newspapers Canada national FOI audit. The City of Hamilton did not look good in the report. I asked the City Clerk questions about the City’s response to the FOI request. What follows are the answers of the City Clerk. My thoughts follow the response.

City Clerk’s response:

Q1. Clarify the reasoning for decision to charge a fee for a record.

The City of Hamilton processes FOI requests in a consistent manner in accordance with the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The calculation of a processing fee is part of preparing an access decision pursuant to Section 45 of the Act.

When applicable, a decision will waive fees for processing that are less than or equal to $5.00. This is in accordance with Ontario Regulation 823. This was not the case with the decision in question as the fee was $23.70.

Q2. Confirm there is no records of contract with Frank Cowan Company Limited.

I am confirming the city has no contract with Frank Cowan Company Limited. The City contracts the services of an Insurance Broker through an RFP process. The Broker places the insurance coverage with an insurer(s) (such as Frank Cowan Company) on behalf of the City. Placement of the insurance with the insurer and payment of the premium is approved by Council. Council approved this decision at its February 17th, 2010 Council meeting via Motion 7.1 2010 Property/Liability Policies Renewal (FCS100008).

Q3. Clarify process that lead to the reconsideration of Council’s January 17th, 2010 decision.

There was no meeting of Council, or Committee of the Whole on January 17th, 2010 or January 8th, 2010 referenced in your e-mail….I believe you are referring to the Council meeting of February 17th, 2010 and Committee of the Whole meeting of February 8th, 2010.

There was no reconsideration at either meeting.

If you follow the February 8th, 2010 meeting of Committee of the Whole, you will note Discussion Item 8.3 2010 Property/Liability Policies Renewal (FCS10008) is listed on the agenda. Following in the Minutes of this meeting ( pg 10) you will note this Item was tabled. This item was tabled pending in-camera discussion of Item 11.2 (Avero matter). Committee did not go into closed session for Item 8.3 and it remained tabled (see pg 11 of the CoW Report 10-006).

I’ve provided the link below to the February 8th, 2010 Committee of the Whole agenda, where you can access the minutes and reports of said meeting and Report FCS10008 as well:

Council, at its February 17th meeting via motion 7.1, raised Item 8.3, tabled in CoW on February 8th, and the recommendation from report FCS10008 was approved.

See Minutes (page 2) via the link to this meeting of Council:

My thoughts about the response:

The City of Hamilton followed the letter of the law in processing these requests. We can and should strive to do better.

The cost of processing fees under $50.00 results is near the cost of the fees recovered. Charging fees can discourage the public from exercising their freedom of information rights. The goal of FOI should be the widest possible dissemination of government information to advance the democratic ideals of our Dominion.

The decision to respond stating the there is no record is a half-truth. The City understood the intent of the request – to see government spending approved by City Council. The request used the exact wording from the City Council meeting. To make it that citizens must understand the bureaucracy shell games involved in government cost centre accounting is a blatant violation of the spirit of transparency.

It is legal – the City is not required to give help to citizens requesting information and is allowed to give misleading truths. That’s what the City did.

For action by City Council:

City Council must correct the failings of our “Freedom of Information” procedures at the local level. Waive fees under a higher set amount, be that $25, $50, or another figure. Let’s save ourselves the hassle of spending more money collecting than we receive.

City Council must adopt a policy that we’ll assist citizens with understanding the shell games of contracts and bureaucracy. Meeting the minimum legal standards of existing legislation is inadequacy and a clear violation of the spirit of Freedom of Information. Hamilton – we don’t do more than necessary – doesn’t have the same buzz as “the best place to raise a child.” Being the best place to raise a child includes being the best place to get public information. A more informed society is a better one to raise a child, let’s work towards it together.