City Council Secret (“In-Camera“) Meetings
There are legitimate reasons for City Council to have confidential in camera discussions – when it would otherwise violate personal privacy of a City employee, or during contract negotiations, where it would be bad for city council to say they would be willing to may as much as $50M on a project with potential bidders listening. You just know that all the bids will magically end up being $50M as a result. There will be a lot of contracts coming due for renegotiation and renewal in 2018 and Council needs to be able to negotiate properly as part of its cost cutting responsibilities.
But I don’t see this being more than maybe 12 times total per year (i.e. no more than once a month). Maybe double that during a particularly busy year when there are a lot of negotiations. For context, between 2014 and 2016, the City of Toronto went in camera 18 times. During the same period, Calgary City Council went in camera a whopping 728 times! This is far outside even my most generous estimates.
I think the current city council is entirely too comfortable in secret meetings. I don’t even think there should be chairs in that room – walk in, discuss the specific details that need to be kept confidential like responsible adults, then walk back out and continue the meeting in public. Simple, accountable, and transparent.
Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP)
There is an old saying in law that “justice delayed is justice denied” and FOIP is part of seeking justice. There will be times when it takes a while to dig out information because it’s not in a database somewhere, or because it contains highly personal information that needs to be protected. But the majority of FOIP requests are for the type of information that is already electronically stored (or should be). I’d like to work towards a system where FOIP requests are almost never necessary because the information is already available to the public.
It’s also important to balance the need to provide transparency with the actions of people who are deliberately or have wanton indifference to the administrative difficulties repeated and excessive FOIP requests can cause (i.e. FOIP spam). This is not a common problem at all, but can cause significant problems when it does happen, and the system needs to be able to deal with it instead of grinding to a halt. We need a quick way to perform triage on FOIP requests so this doesn’t happen. The actions of a FOIP spammer can’t be allowed to prevent the Adminstration from responding to other FOIP requests, and should never provide an excuse not to provide legitimate FOIP information.
My plan is to work towards an electronic system (including things like scanned receipts) that lets the city do it’s job effectively and easily. By a happy coincidence, it will also make FOIP requests easier to provide. At the end of the day, making our records system FOIP friendly also makes the system more efficient and friendly for its daily users.
Second, I’m in favor of an independent Ombudsman for the city. I understand the current Mayor thinks that the existence of an auditor and a city council makes an ombudsman unnecessary, but I strongly disagree – what if the problem is the city council and/or the auditor? The Ombudsman should also have powers related to expediting FOIP requests as part of their role.
Finally, there should be real consequences for interfering with or knowingly causing delays with a FOIP request. As it stands, the only real consequence to an employee for delaying a FOIP response is that it will probably make your their happy. Not exactly an incentive to be quick or efficient. It currently takes upwards of 6 months for some FOIP requests to be delivered. That is completely unreasonable and interferes with the ability of the press to do it’s job.