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Opinion/Commentary: Closed doors and emails

Robert Thomas writes about council's secrecy and details information obtained from a FOI request
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On Tuesday May 15, 2018 Moose Jaw City Council held a special Executive Committee Meeting. 

According to the agenda, the meeting was held in-camera exempted from being held public under Section 94 (2) of the Cities Act as content protected under Part III of the Local Authority Freedom Of Information And Protection Of Privacy Act.

It is just one of dozens of in-camera and behind closed doors meetings held since the October 2016 civic election where the majority of Council members promised to reduce or eliminate the number of secret meetings. 

Too much secrecy at City Hall was a major campaign issue in October 2016. It forced former Mayor Deb Higgins to pledge to open more Council business to the public and media. 

Ironically the number of Strategic Planning Sessions, where no agenda, no minutes and nobody is allowed to reveal publicly the discussion - since Mayor Fraser Tolmie's election, exceeds that of the Higgins' administration. 

In my opinion, how the May 15, 2018 special Executive Committee meeting was held and steps taken to protect its privacy should be setting off alarms when it comes to transparency and accountability. 

Through a Freedom Of Information (FOI) request what I see is a concerted attempt to hide details from the public. Details which do not fit the exemption listed and backed up by a months long review by the Province’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner's Office. 

In a May 13, 2018 email, obtained by an FOI, city clerk/solicitor Myron Gulka-Tiechko advised precautions to keep the meeting's topic secret.

“Also, in terms of locations, the City must provide public notice for all of its meetings. That notice would also include location of the meeting. We would expect the meeting to be held in-camera i.e. behind closed doors are allowed to do with discussions with a third party. However, if the meeting location is the Cultural Centre, it would effectively make the meeting public,” Gulka-Tiechko wrote. 

Now this is not a column about what really happened at the Cultural Centre and how a volunteer board in many ways found themselves victims of dirty Downtown backroom politics. It is about the machinations of what is happening at City Hall when it comes to in-camera, behind closed doors or secret meetings. It is an example of how one occurred, and the justification City Hall try to use to hold it.

It is a justification in the end the Privacy Commissioner’s Office told the City they were wrong. The City was not justified in keeping the details secret and to release documents. 

The documents released in this FOI led to a second FOI where I felt things were being withheld – including financials – and as a result I requested a review by the Freedom of Information office where I provided sufficient evidence to back up my concerns.

In his final report (219 – 2018) June 17, 2019 Saskatchewan Privacy Commissioner Ronald J. Kruzeniski found my request for review justified. Please note the final report can be found in regards to the Privacy Commissioner's decision at https://oipc.sk.ca/reports/?search=City+of+Moose+Jaw

The summation read “The Commissioner found that the exemptions did not apply and recommended release of the records. 

He also reviewed the search efforts of the City and recommended that additional records be released.

Finally, the Commissioner recommended that the City develop and implement a policy to discourage the use of personal email accounts for official business, to ensure information is appropriately safeguarded and records are retained.”

As a result of this report, almost a year later when I initially started asking questions, Council decided to release the records as well as adopt a policy disallowing Council to use personal email accounts for City business.

It was done for transparency and accountability reasons.  

For myself personally, it leaves me wondering…is this an isolated incident? 

Or given the number of in-camera meetings being held, how many if challenged would actually force out more details because they do not warrant an exemption?

How many of these meetings should be held in public but are not? 

In-camera meetings do have their place is something I will readily agree. But to what degree?

If you listen very closely to Council and how many times do you hear ‘we already discussed this’ or ‘we already decided this'? 

Is there at least one of these issues – especially policy issues – which should be discussed in public so the public can enter the debate and provide feedback if they so chose?

To this date, if you go to the City's web-site and take a look at the agenda of the special Executive Committee meeting held on May 15, 2018 the real details released by an FOI remain hidden. Secrecy continues it seems….

Robert Thomas is the acting editor of the news site www.mjindependent.com  As a staff reporter at the local  paper in the 1990's he wrote a series of articles about the mentally ill including the challenges and stigma they face and won a provincial media award for his efforts. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.  




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