ERIN – The Town of Erin has until Sept. 6 to explain a discrepancy between town policy and an affidavit from its clerk and to provide missing details about the destruction of employee severance records.
The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC) requested the information on Aug. 9.
Adjudicator Jessica Kowalski wrote 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 March 8 order found the town did not initially conduct a reasonable search for records from 2012 to 2017 that were sought by the Advertiser in a 2017 Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
The IPC 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 town clerk Lisa 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.
Kowalski noted, “Details of when responsive records were actually destroyed have not been provided; neither, as noted, was the referenced retention schedule provided.”
Referencing a May 30 letter from the Advertiser to the IPC, Kowalski also highlights 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 asks 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.”
The town was provided a deadline of Aug. 23, but the IPC agreed to a town request for an extension to review the matter and account for employee holiday schedules.
The town must now reply by Sept. 6.
Kowalski stated she will review the town’s response to determine the next step in the appeal. If not satisfied her questions have been “fully answered,” the adjudicator may conduct “an oral inquiry.”
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.”