ERIN – After almost two years of refusals, conflicting explanations and failed arguments from its lawyer, the Town of Erin has now decided to provide employee severance information sought by the Advertiser.
In a video posted to the town’s Facebook page at just after 6pm on Sept. 7, clerk Lisa Campion announced severances paid to terminated employees from Jan. 1, 2012 to Dec. 31, 2017 totalled $577,719.
She also stated “staff have conducted an additional search and can confirm that no records have been destroyed.”
That marks a departure from previous statements from Erin officials, which ranged from suggesting records “would have been destroyed after three years” – even though town policy states six years – to declaring the town “cannot confirm whether or not records were destroyed.”
In the 100-second Facebook video shot in the town’s council chamber, Campion states the municipality is “reviewing our records management practices, providing further training to all staff and implementing a new and electronic data records management system which will create efficiencies in retrieving our data in a more effective way.”
Erin’s six-year employee severance total is more than three times the next highest total for municipalities in Wellington County – and greater than the next three highest combined (note: the Erin total is the only one that includes all of 2017).
The six other municipalities in the county provided their totals to the Advertiser within three months – and most much earlier – thus avoiding a newspaper appeal to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC).
Their figures (from Jan. 1, 2012 to Aug. 11, 2017) were:
– Centre Wellington $171,225;
– Guelph-Eramosa $154,014
– Mapleton $174,486;
– Minto $48,172;
– Puslinch $2,448; and
– Wellington North $106,611.
IPC adjudicator Jessica Kowalski had given the The Town of Erin until Sept. 6 to explain a discrepancy between town policy and an affidavit from Campion and to provide missing details about the destruction of employee severance records.
Kowalski wrote on Aug. 9 that she is “not satisfied” with the town’s response to her interim order directing Erin officials to conduct further searches for severance records.
The order states that “if, as a result of the further searches, it appears that responsive records existed but no longer exist,” the town must provide “details of when such records were destroyed” as well as “evidence of retention schedules.”
However, an April 8 affidavit from Campion, which states further searches uncovered just one document about one employee (access to which was denied), failed to meet both of those stipulations.
“I have reviewed Ms. Campion’s affidavit and am not satisfied that it complies with [that provision of the order],” Kowalski wrote in her letter to Bay Street law firm Aird and Berlis, which is representing the town.
Referencing a May 30 letter from the Advertiser to the IPC, Kowalski also highlighted a discrepancy between Campion’s claim that employee records are retained for three years and a town policy that states payroll records, including severance payments, are to be kept for six years.
Kowalski’s Aug. 9 letter asked the town to “explain this discrepancy” and, as previously requested, to provide “evidence of retention schedules” and “details describing when, and what, responsive records were destroyed.”
In the fall of 2017 the Advertiser asked all Wellington County municipalities for the total amount of severances paid to terminated employees from Jan. 1, 2012 to Aug. 11, 2017.
The FOI 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 then appealed Erin’s decision to the IPC.
The town’s IPC submissions, filed by Jody Johnson of Aird and Berlis, argued unsuccessfully that the newspaper’s request was for a single document that does not exist – and the town is not required to create a record.
The Advertiser maintained town officials should have known that fulfilling the FOI request would require a search for several records/documents.
The IPC ruled in the Advertiser’s favour and ordered the town to conduct more searches and submit an affidavit from the person(s) conducting the search.
Campion’s affidavit claimed employee records are to be kept for three years, meaning records from 2012 to early 2016 “would have been destroyed.”
Asked if records could still exist somewhere or if it’s possible they were lost, moved or permanently removed, town officials would not say.
“We cannot confirm whether or not records were destroyed,” communications officer Jessica Spina stated in an interview on May 13.
When the newspaper later learned about the discrepancy between Campion’s affidavit and the town’s own retention policy – a complete copy of which was provided to the newspaper only after a second request – Spina cancelled a pre-arranged interview with the Advertiser.
In a June 3 email she stated “staff are respecting the process … and will await further communications from the IPC.”