Kept in the dark

Many readers may be shocked to learn the county has paid $1.2 million to terminated employees since 2012.

That’s understandable. It’s a lot of money – and all of it comes from taxpayers’ pockets.

That cash would unquestionably be better spent on a bridge or road repairs. But when you consider the county has over 800 employees and spends over $43 million on wages annually, the figure becomes less outrageous.

The figures for the lower tier municipalities in the county are arguably more interesting. In fact,  it was frequent turnover of senior staff in a few lower tier municipalities that led the Advertiser to cover this story in the first place.

Every municipality is different, but at the lower tier, with smaller staffs, the firing of a few top staff members can have a significant economic impact on the corporation. Such was the case in Mapleton and though we don’t have the numbers to prove it, we’re certain the impact was similar, if not worse, in Erin.

At the outset, the Advertiser’s goal was to let county residents know exactly how many of their hard earned tax dollars are being siphoned into settlements paid to terminated employees.

After all, there’s only so many times residents can read banal, obscure press releases about “exits” or “departures” from the municipality before they rightly start to wonder what it’s costing them.

Yet for us, the biggest takeaway from our page one article this week is how difficult some municipalities made it for this Newspaper to obtain basic information that should be readily available to taxpayers.

So much for repeated claims of “openness” and “transparency.”

Of the eight municipalities contacted, only Wellington County responded right away with annual severance figures for 2012 to 2017.

Two lower tier municipalities, Minto and Puslinch, understandably asked to provide one figure for the five-plus year period, which they did expediently.  

Centre Wellington, Mapleton and Wellington North also provided the overall number, but not right away and not without varying degrees of prodding.

Of particular note is the outright refusal of Erin and Guelph-Eramosa to provide information, despite repeated requests.

The go-to excuse for refusing to provide the information, as is far too often the case for municipal officials hoping to withhold public information from taxpayers, was concerns about “privacy.” Indeed, individual settlements should remain private and municipalities have a legal obligation to ensure those details are kept under wraps.

But the Advertiser revised its request to ensure that no settlement could be matched to an individual and even that the number of settlements was not revealed.

Readers can check the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for themselves, but trust me, there’s nothing in the act stating the information as requested by the Advertiser is exempt.

Yet that didn’t stop several municipalities, specifically Erin and Guelph-Eramosa, from repeatedly making that very assertion.

Erin officials went one step further in their efforts to keep residents in the dark, suggesting the record does not exist. It should also be noted that three Erin officials (including a newly-hired “communications” officer), as of publication on Jan. 2, have yet to return several phone calls and emails seeking comment on the article.

The Advertiser is also awaiting word on whether Erin and Guelph-Eramosa officials will be convinced by provincial officials to share the information requested. Regardless, residents in those two municipalities should be outraged at this blatant slap in the face. They may want to contact their mayor/councillors to ask why municipal officials are being so secretive.

If there’s a legitimate privacy issue, why did six other municipalities share the information?

But residents shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for answers.

If we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that some municipal officials operate with impunity as they see fit – decency, common sense, legislation, duty-to-inform, and taxpayers be damned.

It’s little wonder then, why many residents often feel they’re being treated like mushrooms.