You don't have a right to know

Is the president and CEO of Hamilton Health Sciences Corporation expensing taxpayers for muffins?

Probably not.

It doesn’t matter what he is or is not expensing to taxpayers – Hamilton Health Sciences Corporation isn’t required to act transparently and they have no intention of voluntarily providing information.

Want to know how much money the City of Hamilton is spending on public relations staffing?

Be ready to pay for that information; the City of Hamilton is the only municipality unwilling to give basic information about public spending without nickle-and-diming for every cent they’re legally able to charge as a barrier to public requests.

Looking for a city contract you’re sure exists?

Don’t count on government officials to know it exists.

These are just three of the many examples of government bodies denying information or acting inconsistently found in the sixth annual Freedom of Information Audit by Newspapers Canada, the trade association of Canada’s newspaper industry.

The Audit is the most comprehensive test of the freedom of information system in Canada. Lead by Fred Vallance-Jones, assistant professor of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, a team of King’s College students send the similar FOI requests to many jurisdictions across the country and log the responses.

Agencies audited in Hamilton

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Letter from Hamilton Health Sciences in response to request for info from 2011 FOI audit conducted by Newspapers Canada
##### Hamilton Health Sciences

The audit asked many hospitals across Canada to release the credit card statements of their respective executive heads. Hamilton Health Sciences received a request. The request sent to hospitals asked for:

All credit card statements from 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 for any government-issued or corporate credit card issued for use of the most senior hospital employee in carrying out his or her duties. If no such card exists, all travel and entertainment expense claims filed by the same employee for the same time period.

Hamilton Health Sciences responded, after 34 days, by denying the request noting they remain exempt from freedom of information until 2012.

(Aside: In an interesting coincidence, Hamilton Health Sciences posted a job opening for a “Freedom of Information Specialist” on the same day the audit was released)

City of Hamilton

The City of Hamilton was the recipient of three requests from the audit.

The City quickly responded to two of the requests quickly. A request for public relations staffing costs was more slowly processed and Hamilton was the only municipality to attempt charging a fee to release this information.

Municipal social media policy

The City was asked to provide:

Any guidelines for personal or business use of social media sites by municipal employees. Social media sites include but are not limited to Twitter and Facebook.

The city responded to the request in 6 days providing King’s College with the full policy.

Knowing how much the city spends on PR will cost you

The second request to the City of Hamilton asked the staffing and budget for the city’s public communications:

Records indicating the number of person years and the annual budget for each of the past three fiscal years for public communications (including media relations).

Hamilton was the only municipality to request a fee for the record with other municipalities willingly providing the information or responding they do not have dedicated individuals for public relations.

Hamilton, Ontario was the only municipality to ask for a fee, a fee so small it may not have been worth charging. It certainly had the effect of making Hamilton less transparent by introducing delay to the process. The fee of $23.70 was made up of 40 minutes of search time, $3.50 to prepare the records for disclosure and 20 cents to photocopy one page.

The City needs to be less bureaucratic and more transparent. A simple request needs not be turned into a molehill. There are no reasonable grounds that City budget information should be not be available to the public at no charge. We should adopt the recommendation of the audit and waive any fees less than $50.

Municipal contract information
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Both municipalities and federal government departments were asked to provide a copy of an individual contract requested. This tests the government’s willingness to give information about how it spends taxpayer’s money.

The City of Hamilton was asked to provide its contract with Frank Cowan Company Limited (FCCL) for Liability and Property Insurance coverage valued at $3,951,257.

The City responded in 2 days stating they have no record of this contract.

Where’s the Contract? Does it exist?

The statement by the City that no record of the requested contract with FCCL exists requires further review.

It’s easy to forget that Frank Cowan Company Limited contract was one of the most contentious issues dividing City Council during the Winter of 2010. It seems so long ago – or as we say, before the ongoing Pan Am Games fiasco.

The FCCL debate ragged in January and February of 2010 dividing Council and ended in a controversial vote.

Committee of the Whole considered the renewal of insurance with FCCL on January February 8, 2010. The consideration was tabled to the in-camera portion of the meeting that day. No decision was made and the matter was deferred to a later date.

On February 17, 2010, Council waived its procedural bylaws and in a standing recorded vote decided to renew their contract with FCCL for 2010 at a cost of $3,951,257. The vote was 6-4 with 6 Councillors absent from the meeting.

There is no record of Council rescinding the decision. It is possible that Council met in-camera and decided to overturn their decision. If they did, then no record of the contract would exist. However, Council would need to purchase insurance elsewhere or vote to “self-insure” – both of which require a public vote that I can find no record of.

It Exists, now where is it?

The City’s one year extension with FCCL expired at the beginning of this year. In December (2012), Council voted to select a new provider. The staff report recommending the change refers to FCCL as the incumbent provider. This means the City did sign a contract with FCCL – the exact contract requested.

I emailed the City Clerk requesting clarification and await a response from the City.

We can do better, we expect better

The Newspapers Canada audit revealed that Hamilton’s government bodies are failing to be transparent and not acting within the spirit of openness. We need to ask our public officials act to enforce transparency.

When your local candidate for MPP knocks on your door this week, ask them what they will do to fix our broken FOI system.

*Corrections: *I corrected stated the dates of the City Council meetings as being in January of 2010. In fact, both occurred in February. I regret the error.