Freedom of Information is a Joke in this Town

Acting on a tip from a reader, who seemed to think that CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke, his executive assistant Mark Bettens and (the now former) economic development manager John Phelan were doing an unusual amount of traveling on the public dime last fall, I sent a request under Section XX of the Municipal Government Act (MGA) to the CBRM for travel expenses for the three, from 1 November 2018 up to and including the date of my application, 11 April 2019.

Here’s the response I received from Municipal Clerk Deborah Ryan Campbell:



Let’s unpack this together, shall we?


Double dipping

Unless CBRM staff — unlike staff in any other municipality on this planet — work on a volunteer basis, then they are paid to do their jobs and sometimes those jobs involve gathering information in response to a freedom of information request. Asking me to pay them again for doing those jobs makes no sense — and is clearly taking the “free” out of freedom of information.


Big data

In an Issue Paper (“Travel and Related Expense Processing and Reporting”) presented to council during the 5 November 2018 general committee meeting, Director of Technology John MacKinnon explained that new provincial legislation, introduced in September 2017 and expected to become law in the near future, will require all elected officials plus the CAO to post their expenses online.

According to the report:

Recognizing that it was necessary to enhance our processing of expense claims and with the pending expense claim legislation, the CBRM began developing an online CBRM expense claims portal. The portal is a “one stop shop” for expense claim requests, approval, and reimbursement. It incorporates electronic approvals at each stage of the process for future reviews and auditing purposes. The information contained in the expense claims is published to a secure relational database and gives the CBRM ability to publish expense information easily, efficiently, and accurately.

MacKinnon’s Issue Paper, dated 30 October 2018, indicates the database already exists — that the CBRM has the ability to “publish expense information easily, efficiently, and accurately.”

So why would it take staff 15 hours to gather information that, judging by the information in this report, has already been collected in the database?


Public dime

When elected officials and municipal employees travel on the public dime, the public has the right to know where they went, why they went and how much they spent.

Mayor Cecil Clarke posts travel expenses quarterly, but the expense sheets can be light on detail (click to enlarge):

As you can see, in June 2018 he traveled to an unknown location for a “port development meeting” with unnamed people.

His most recent expenses at least tell us he went to Toronto for a port meeting in March 2019, but again, he doesn’t say with whom he met. And I cannot recall him informing council about the results of this meeting (click to enlarge):



I made a great big noisy fuss about this — I sent a Mueller-esque (read: snitty) reply to the Municipal Clerk and cc’ed the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) of Nova Scotia and Michael Karanicolas of the Right to Know Coalition to Nova Scotia for good measure.

I also asked the OIPC for an official review of the fee the CBRM wants to charge, but it can take (literally) years to get a decision from the OIPC and the CBRM is under no obligation to comply with that decision when it finally comes down.

All of which makes charging outrageous fees for information a brilliant way to avoid transparency and accountability if avoiding transparency and accountability is what you’re about. So if the CBRM insists on charging this unreasonable fee, I may ask for donations to cover it. (Update: Tim Bousquet has reminded me that we have a joint investigative fund — $5 from every $15 joint monthly Spectator/Examiner subscription goes into it — which will cover this FOIPOP.)

What the CBRM can’t control is the stink rising from its refusal to release basic expense information. Maybe Clarke incurred no travel expenses other than those found in his online reports.  Maybe Bettens and Phelan didn’t even leave the CBRM during the period I’m inquiring about.

But charging me $390 for information about their travel and expenses makes it look like they spent four months in Disneyland.

And that’s not a good look for any municipality.