The month at a glance

By Rob Wipond, Derry McDonnell and Alan Cassels, April 2013

• Trend to “oral government” undermining accountability

• Faux consultation on City budget?

• Another fired drug researcher files suit

 

Trend to “oral government” undermining accountability

Last September, the non-profit Freedom of Information and Privacy Association complained to BC Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham about a growing trend for public information requests to the provincial government to come up empty. Denham investigated, and in March issued her report. 

The Commissioner verified that “no responsive records” replies to Freedom of Information requests have dramatically increased across the BC government from 13 percent in 2008/09 to 25 percent of all requests in 2011/12.

“These increases coincide with government’s centralization of the processing of access to information requests under IAO,” observed Denham. “Information Access Operations” is a specialized branch the BC Liberals created, ostensibly to speed up FOI processing. Could this centralization actually be making political interference easier and more common? Denham did not speculate, but supplied suspicion-inducing factoids.

Denham determined that in some cases, IAO actually found the records applicants had asked for, but not exactly where the applicants had asked them to search—IAO then claimed there were “no responsive records.” In other cases, applicants were “helped” by IAO to narrow their requests so that they wouldn’t have to pay huge fees for mammoth amounts of documents—but the revised requests then resulted in “no responsive records” replies. 

And whose requests were consistently the most likely to turn up empty? The media’s, wrote Denham. Last year, for example, half of all media requests for documents to the Office of the Premier turned up zilch. It seems our premier and cohorts are operating in what Denham described as “a records-free way.”

“According to the Office of the Premier,” wrote Denham, “the general practice of staff in that office is to communicate verbally and in person. We were informed that staff members do not usually use email for substantive communication relating to business matters, and that most emails are ‘transitory’ in nature and are deleted…” 

So what exactly is a “transitory” email that has nothing to do with the Office of the Premier’s taxpayer-funded “business”? Well, for example, the premier’s former Deputy Chief of Staff Kim Haakstad told Denham that all emails leading up to the mysterious, high-profile resignation of former Chief of Staff Ken Boessenkool last September “would have been transitory in nature and were deleted.”

Denham then overviewed a 20-year history of federal and provincial information commissioners and other experts urging Canadian governments to create “duty to document” legislation. “Without a legislated duty to document, government can effectively avoid public scrutiny,” wrote Denham, pointing out that “oral government” undermines accountability, democratic processes, and historical knowledge. 

Indeed, this latter issue leads to what is, in some ways, the most disturbing revelation in her report. “[T]here is a serious problem with government’s practice of archiving records,” wrote Denham. In 2003, BC Archives introduced a “fee for service” model. “Since the introduction of this fee for service model,” wrote Denham, “government has not transferred any permanent records to BC Archives.”

Rob Wipond

 

Faux consultation on City budget?

In 2010 the City of Victoria adopted an internationally recognized set of seven rules for conducting so-called “public engagement programs,” including public input into its annual budget development and approval process. 

So just how closely did council adhere to these rules as it developed its 2013 Operating and Capital Budget—a budget with a self-imposed target of capping any tax increase to 3.25 percent and cutting $6 million in costs within the next three years? Judging by the minutes of seven closed-door meetings held from May through November 2012, the answer is, hardly at all. 

For starters, consider that all seven meetings were conducted behind closed doors and that the minutes of those meetings—even the censored versions obtained through a Freedom of Information request—do not appear on the City’s website. 

While certain tidbits of information and preliminary decisions did wend their way into the public eye over six months, far more was hidden from view as council wrestled with the question of how to meet their own target and the $6 million in cuts required to achieve it.

What we can tell, even with the minutes shorn of the actual discussion and voting record, however, is that this January, when the City finally started “engaging” the public in this important and even game-changing budget process, virtually all the key decisions had already been ratified by council. This includes the overall tax cap of 3.25 percent itself. (Why, one might ask, was the target not 0 percent, at least for starters? The answer, it appears, is that the original recommendation—from staff, of course, not the public—exceeded 4 percent.) 

On the other hand, the Victoria City Police force (24 percent of the budget) was assured of an annual 2 percent budget increase for the next three years, again behind closed doors and with the discussion removed from the minutes.

Or how about the decision on a staff recommendation to drop the paper version of Connect (the City’s newsletter) and make it available online instead? That was rejected by council before we even heard about it. Yet cutting back on the communications department budget was a favourite at public meetings held by Councillor Lisa Helps last July.

We can also see that council opted to hive off the most contentious aspect of the cost-cutting side of the process—chiefly anything that could lead to significant staff reductions and/or salary changes, which account for about 50 percent of total expenditures—and hand it off to an outside consultant, thus leaving the public to quibble over the $1 million in minor cost containment items, such as perennials for annuals on City boulevards and fewer City-sponsored events in Centennial Square that it had come up with by November. 

Derry McDonell

 

Another fired drug researcher files suit

A few developments and even more questions have arisen since last month’s article in Focus on the firing spree at the BC Ministry of Health.

Two weeks ago Bob Hart, a former director of data access, research and stewardship with the ministry, filed his notice of claim in BC’s Supreme Court, making him the third Ministry of Health employee to sue for being terminated without just cause around this case. His suit lists the ministry officials who led an extraordinary set of Kafkaesque interrogations last summer which resulted in six employees fired and a seventh suing for constructive dismissal. One of the fired employees is now dead and the coroner is still investigating.  

Hart’s suit alleges that Dale Samsonoff, Wendy Taylor and Sarah Brownlee were part of the investigative team that called him to a meeting on August 31 last year, confronted him with allegations of workplace misconduct, and suspended him without pay. Two weeks later Deputy Minister Graham Whitmarsh brought the hammer down and the 58-year-old employee, with an unblemished record of 27 years of service in the Ministry of Health, was canned. 

This kind of swift and lethal application of justice is highly unusual in both corporate and government worlds where strict protocols, allowing employees leeway to correct shortcomings, are common.   

So far Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid  has said that the current imbroglio at the ministry did not involve personalized data used for non-health related purposes. That seems to be the biggest crime when it comes to data breaches, and it made me wonder, what does happen in bureaucracies when someone, for personal gain, breaches an individual’s privacy? 

The most high-profile breach of personal privacy in Canada probably concerns Captain Sean Bruyea, a Canadian air force officer who served in the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He had his personal medical and financial files distributed across a wide swath of senior officials in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (without his knowledge or permission) and they used this information against him because he had the temerity to criticize the government’s treatment of disabled veterans. The case is more nuanced than what I can say here, but of the 54 people who had inappropriately accessed Bruyea’s file, 36 received an “administrative memo,” nine were reprimanded and nine received one-day suspensions. Nobody was fired.

Let’s put this in context: When government employees have egregiously broken the law in accessing personal files, there are wrist slaps all around. But in Victoria, we fire seven employees, people like Bob Hart, on the whiff of wrongdoing for which no one can produce a single credible allegation.  

Increasingly it appears Bob Hart and his fired colleagues are collateral damage from someone calling in a drone strike on the BC Ministry of Health’s drug safety evaluation apparatus. And the pharma conspiracy theorists are having a field day.

Alan Cassels