Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Dissecting a decision

Three things struck me about a recent decision by Nova Scotia Privacy Commissioner Catherine Tully.

The decision involved what was then called Nova Scotia Waterfront Development Corporation Limited (WDCL), a provincial crown corporation originally responsible for land development, primarily around Halifax Harbour.

In late 2015, the WDCL “issued a call for proposals in relation to a Halifax waterfront business opportunity – a waterfront beer garden.”

Apparently, this is what Develop Nova Scotia sees when it pictures expanded rural high speed internet.

Apparently, this is what Develop Nova Scotia sees when it pictures expanded rural high speed internet. I’d suggest dude was filing an online FOIPOP application, but the provincial government site is still down. (Source: Develop Nova Scotia)

This is the first element of the decision that struck me, that people in Halifax were given the opportunity to bid for the right to operate a beer garden on their waterfront, in contrast to the CBRM, where a businessman was simply handed the opportunity to open a beer garden on the Sydney boardwalk.

A curious Haligonian sent a freedom of information protection of privacy (FOIPOP) request to the WDCL requesting copies of the bids received as a result of the WDCL’s call for proposals, which leads to the second thing that struck me about the case: namely, what a complete hash the WDCL made of responding to the FOIPOP application.

To make a long story short, the WDCL, in addition to failing to follow the proper procedure for responding to such a request, redacted (“severed” is the official term) information from the bidders’ submissions citing Section 17 and Section 21 of the Privacy Act. Section 17 provides that “a public body may withhold information where disclosure is ‘reasonably expected to harm’ the financial or economic interests of the public body or the Government of Nova Scotia.” Section 21 allows a public body to withhold information provided by a third party if the public body can prove that:

1. the disclosure of the requested information would reveal trade secrets of a third party or commercial, financial, labour relations or technical information of a third party;
2. the information in question was supplied implicitly or explicitly in confidence; and
3. the disclosure of the requested information could reasonably be expected to cause one or more of the harms enumerated in s. 21(1)(c).

In her decision, the Commissioner found the WDCL:

…provided no evidence nor any submissions in support of its application of s. 17 to the records. In fact, as noted above, the records themselves do not specify which information was withheld under s. 17 and which information was withheld under s. 21. When asked, the WDCL was unable to recall which information attracted s. 17 severing.

As for Section 21, the Commissioner found that:

…the WDCL has failed to establish that the three-part test set out in s. 21 applies to any of the withheld information.

The Commissioner ended by finding the WDCL had failed to justify withholding information under either Section 17 or Section 21 and recommended the information be released in full.

But here’s the third thing that struck me about the decision: the Commissioner notes that the WDCL “does not frequently receive access to information requests. As with many other smaller organizations, it can be a significant challenge to properly process an access to information request when, in practice, there are so few.”

The thing is, this FOIPOP-challenged organization has since been renamed Develop Nova Scotia and, as part of its mission to “support the creation of sustainable places” across the province, has been tasked with “designing and managing the implementation strategy for Rural High Speed Internet across the province in connection with the Nova Scotia Internet Funding Trust.”

Presumably, there will be calls for proposals to expand rural high speed internet. Presumably, citizens will be interested in seeing this proposals. Is there any chance Develop Nova Scotia has learned its lesson and will understand that, unless it can present convincing evidence to the contrary, it is obligated to share this information?

In fact, agreeing, after the fact, to share the information is actually the second-best-case scenario: the best case (which I’m afraid we can only dream of) would be for the government to consider the advantages of open procurement. As per the Commissioner:

The assertion that disclosure of procurement-related information might somehow harm the economic or financial interests of a public body has been recently challenged. In a 2018 international study of open procurement practices, the author found that disclosure of procurement-related information can result in significant benefits to the public body. The study highlights a number of benefits of open procurement practices including that it enhances the ability of businesses to understand and engage with the public procurement system which increases competition and levels the playing field among contractors. Another benefit highlighted by the study is that open procurement practices help to enhance the ability of the public, including watchdog groups, to track public procurement expenditure, promoting efficiency and accountability by making it easier to uncover waste and mismanagement.

 

 

Spam-atorial

I am a regular recipient of editor-targeted spam like this, from Mildred Newsom:

Love the septic content on your site! You know, businesses get traffic from their blogs, and we feel that you could use a little boost, since you are not blogging weekly yet.

Blogging takes a lot of time and effort, and we have just the team to come up with great content you need.

You can have your new article to post on your website starting at $10 in as little as 5 business days!

It’s possible Mildred is a) real and b) an internet marketing genius. It is even possible that more septic content on my site would drive traffic (although I’m guessing there are some who would suggest my site has plenty of septic content). At any rate, it’s not a theory I care to test.

This week, though, I received a particularly sneaky form of spam, from Natacha El Azar:

Hello,

Hope you are well.

I’m Natacha, a golf writer for [company name redacted].

We are delighted to announce that Cape Breton’s very own Cabot Cliffs has been revealed as the 10th world’s best golf course, congratulations!

In collaboration with golf courses from all over the world, [company name redacted] has put together the ultimate golf bucket list named “20 World’s Best Golf Courses”. The article is ranked by the [company name redacted] team on the services, facilities, location, and the aesthetics of the course. All the courses in the article have provided their own content to be featured.

It would be amazing if you could share Cabot Cliffs’ achievements.

I like the odd phrasing of the honor — “the 10th world’s best golf course.” I always thought we stopped counting at “third world,” so the revelation that there’s a 10th world where, presumably, desperately poor people still like to play golf at high-end courses is undeniably fascinating.

And I do have to give Natacha points for honesty — the list was made “in collaboration with golf courses all over the world” and they “provided their own content,” so no fears there will be any actual editorial judgment involved. And it turns out promoting golf courses also helps her company, which has a stated mission to:

Serve as the online golf marketplace. Help customers find and book tee times for golf courses around the world. Help golf courses to be discovered and obtain online bookings in an easy and transparent way.

But I’m sorry Natacha, although it would be “amazing” of me to “share Cabot Cliffs’ achievement,” and in the process give both your company and Cabot Cliffs some free advertising, I’m honestly more tempted to sign up for Mildred’s septic blog.

 

O Christmas Tree

The “Tree for Boston” is kind of a running joke between my father and me. We regularly identify large spruce trees we think would make suitable Christmas trees for the city of Boston. Sometimes this is because they are large, nicely shaped spruce tress. More often, it is because they are large, indifferently shaped spruce trees threatening our power lines or blocking our view of the lake — trees that look like they were the final assignment of someone who flunked out of topiary school.

Some of the trees we have tried to send to Boston.

Some of the trees we have tried to send to Boston.

But now that I’m on the receiving end of government of Nova Scotia press releases, I’ve come to realize the tree is a Very. Serious. Thing.

As in, the good people of Boston have yet to celebrate American Thanksgiving (or “Thanksgiving” as they call it in Boston) and we’re cutting down a Christmas tree for them. And that tree has a busier November than I do:

Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin will attend the tree-cutting ceremony for the Tree for Boston at 10:30 a.m., Thursday, Nov. 15. He will be joined by Jane Abram, a Mi’kmaw elder from Millbrook First Nation and Mayor Trish Stewart. Oxford Regional Elementary students will sing carols.

After the ceremony, the tree will be on public display at the Rath Eastlink Community Centre, 625 Abenaki Rd., Truro, at 2 p.m.

On Friday, Nov. 16, Deputy Premier Karen Casey will host a public send-off for the tree at Halifax’s Grand Parade at 11:45 a.m. She will be joined by Lands and Forestry Minister Ian Rankin, U.S. Consul Annie Wiktowy, Chief of Millbrook First Nation Bob Gloade and Mayor Mike Savage. East Coast Carolling will also perform.

On Saturday, Nov. 17, the tree will appear in the Chronicle Herald Holiday Parade of Lights in downtown Halifax at 6 p.m.

On Sunday, Nov. 18, the tree will be on display at Atlantic Superstore, 126 South Albion St., Amherst at 10 a.m.

(I picture the tree shedding needles at each stage until, by the time it reaches Boston, it’s just a skeleton with a few hints of green here and there, but presumably, there are professional tree wranglers who know how to prevent this.)

What the tree is sure to leave behind is a trail of press releases, filled with what Halifax Examiner publisher Tim Bousquet once characterized as the “mawkish feel-good sentimentality” of the Boston Christmas Tree origin story which, like most origin stories, is mostly bunkum, as I’ll let Bousquet explain:

I’ve got no problem with spending a quarter of a million dollars on sending the tree to Boston.

What I do have a problem with, however, is the mischaracterization of the exercise as a “thank you” to Boston for the help Bostonians gave Halifax after the Explosion. It’s nothing of the sort.

Of course, in 1917 and 1918 Bostonians (and others) provided medical and material relief that saved many lives. There was a terrible disaster relatively nearby, and people rose to the occasion.

And so in 1918, as the city of Halifax was getting back on its feet, the province sent a Christmas tree to Boston as a token of appreciation for the help. All very good. But from 1919 through 1970, the people of Nova Scotia were completely ungrateful for that help, at least not so grateful as to send another Christmas tree.

The “give a tree to Boston” thing was revised in 1971, not out of gratitude — most of the people who survived the Explosion were long dead from less spectacular causes — but to promote the provincial tourism and Christmas tree industry industries…

Immediately after the Explosion, relief trains came from Moncton and Saint John, but we don’t thank those communities with trees because, let’s face it, we don’t need a bunch of New Brunswickians wandering around aimlessly downtown; rather, we need Americans spending their high-valued greenbacks. So: tree for Boston, continued ridicule for Saint John.

If we ever decide to rectify this situation, I have JUST the tree to send to Saint John…

 

Fancy feast

As if to underline the difference between my social life and that of the Boston Christmas Tree, I found this in my inbox on Thursday morning:

 

Yes, on the same day the Tree for Boston is appearing in the Chronicle Herald Holiday Parade of Lights, I have been invited to what appears to be an American Thanksgiving celebration for animals.

Arguably, it’s not even really my invitation — it’s an invitation for my cats. As a “pet parent” (a title I reject, vehemently) all I get is recipes allowing me to go home and cook for them.

Part of me thinks it would serve these crazy people right if I did bring my cats to their “fall feast” — especially my black cat, who is from the former Czechoslovakia and has an innate distrust of North American consumerism in all its manifestations. (Besides which, he is a cat, and therefore hates, in no particular order, other cats, strange places and new food).

But part of me thinks I should take my social invitations where I can get them. Although I’d feel a lot better about this one if the Tree for Boston were going to be there.

Feature collage includes a picture of the Tree for Boston on Boston Common, 2010, by Louis Oliveira from Warwick, RI, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

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