The Clark LRT Freedom of Information Process Points to Need for Serious FOI Reform at City Hall

This week, Mayoral candidate Brad Clark provided 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 wise politics by the Clark campaign to keep LRT as the sole issue to use as a wedge.

This post is going to focus upon 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 involve 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 3rd 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 CHML this morning we’re odd and very concerning.

Skip ahead to the 29:30 minute mark.

He claims he was doing some office cleaning, found a cabinet with very little in it, and he found the memo Clark was looking for.

Bratina continued stating 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 concerning, 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/h4>

Now, for the purposes of assuming good faith, let’s put aside the Mayor’s comments on the radio this morning.

To be honest, I don’t believe the suddenly found in a cabinet story.

When a freedom of information request is receive by the City, City staff send the request onwards to the department holding the record. In the case of this file, the Mayor’s Office.

The Mayor’s Office then searches for the file. When found, they are instructed to give the file to the secrecy freedom of information office.

The FOI office then sits on the file until the 30-day mark, for a simple request, and determines the maximum fee it can charge for releasing the document. (The goal seemingly being to discourage future requests for public information.)

The Mayor’s Office choose to directly give the information.

Mayor’s Office Release

It is not unheard of for the Mayor’s Office – and some members of Council – to directly release documents 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 secrecy 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 required.

Councillors, and the Mayor, by giving the documents directly to the requestor, bypassing the FOI office, can save an applicant hundreds of dollars. To say nothing of the frustration and time required dealing with the FOI office.

Mayor Bratina’s Chief of Staff Peggy Chapman states 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 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 their past practice of releasing documents without charge when requested via FOI.

Chapman states 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 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 Newspaper Canada FOI audits.

This year, the City’s FOI office was so dismal that it didn’t even earn an “F” level failure.

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 topic culture.

Part of the toxic culture – 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.