ERIN – Town officials say the municipality has paid almost $18,000 to its lawyers to fight an FOI request from the Advertiser for employee severance details.
It is unclear if further legal invoices are forthcoming, but as of the end of October, the town received five invoices, ranging from $967 to $5,600 and totalling $17,794.
On Oct. 23, the Advertiser filed two FOI (Freedom of Information) requests for:
– all invoices, from legal firms and any other outside consultants, related to a 2017 FOI request and appeal to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC); and
– all documents indicating the cost and staff time involved to deal with the 2017 request.
Regarding staff time and costs, the town’s Nov. 26 response states “no additional responsive records exist beyond communications” previously received by the newspaper.
The response notes staff spent 50 to 55 hours conducting searches for documents.
“Due to the fact that fees were not being collected with respect to these searches, these [are] approximate figures that were verbally communicated to myself,” states the response letter from clerk Lisa Campion.
Her other response letter provided invoice totals but denied the newspaper access to the actual legal firm invoices under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Specifically, states the letter from Campion, supplying the invoices would violate solicitor-client privilege and “prejudice significantly the competitive position” of the legal firm(s).
The letter does not specify from which firm(s) the invoices were received, but the town was represented throughout the IPC appeal by Bay Street law firm Aird and Berlis.
The town’s response to the Advertiser’s FOI request for legal bills included a $22.50 invoice to the newspaper to cover a “search/processing fee” that indicates it took staff 45 minutes to search for the documents.
The Advertiser’s two previous attempts to find out how much the town was paying its lawyer to fight the 2017 FOI request were denied by the town.
In May of 2018 the newspaper made a written request directly to communications officer Jessica Spina for the information. She replied, “The document is internal and therefore you will need to file a request through the normal process for access.”
An FOI request for the information was rejected by the town the following month. The newspaper did not appeal the decision.
In September, after a two-year battle, the Town of Erin decided to provide the total severances paid to terminated Erin employees from Jan. 1, 2012 to Dec. 31, 2017, totalling $577,719.
(An FOI request filed by a town resident later uncovered the town paid an additional $225,603 in 2018 in severances).
The September release followed an Aug. 9 letter to the town from IPC adjudicator Jessica Kowalski stating she was “not satisfied” with the response to her interim order directing Erin officials to conduct further searches for severance records.
The additional searches were ordered after the IPC rejected the initial town submissions filed by Aird and Berlis that argued the newspaper’s request was for a single document that does not exist – and the town is not required to create a record.
The original FOI request was filed in the fall of 2017 as part of an Advertiser request to all Wellington municipalities for total severances paid to terminated employees from 2012 to 2017. The request was made in response to what appeared to be a large number of firings by some area municipalities.
Erin was the only one of eight municipalities that refused to provide the information. The newspaper appealed Erin’s decision to the IPC.