Secrecy and saving face

Nineteen months after filing a freedom of information (FOI) request for severances paid to terminated Erin employees (between 2012 and 2017), it appears the town’s efforts to keep taxpayers in the dark may have prevailed.

A few weeks ago we received correspondence from town deputy clerk Lisa Campion stating an additional search for records – ordered by the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC) after it rejected the town’s first pathetic attempt to withhold the information – uncovered just one record pertaining to one individual.

It wasn’t until last week, when we received Campion’s affidavit detailing the second search, we discovered why it was fruitless.

After a year and a half of ongoing town correspondence with its lawyer, the IPC and the Advertiser, it was revealed for the first time that, conveniently (for the town at least), most of the records sought by the newspaper have apparently been destroyed by the town.

We remain sceptical of some of the details relayed by Campion, but even if we take her account at face value, it raises some important questions.

When were the records actually destroyed? The Advertiser will be asking the IPC to again obtain this information from the town. No timelines were provided in Campion’s affidavit, despite  the IPC order requiring “details of when such records were destroyed.”

If town policy states employee records are to be retained for three years, it appears some records were destroyed after the town received the original FOI request and, worse yet, during the ongoing IPC appeal.

Could the records the town says it destroyed (from 2012 to early 2016) have been disposed of in the two weeks between the IPC order and the start of the town’s second search? We hope that’s not the case, but given the lack of details provided and the town’s past actions to protect this information, it’s at least plausible.

Why were other municipalities with nearly identical record retention procedures (keeping human resources files for three years after employee departures) able to provide the severance information? Minto, for example,  handed over its information within a week of the newspaper’s original email – and without requiring an official FOI request.

Of course the biggest question that remains, long after the Advertiser’s request was summarily rejected, is: why is the town working so hard to keep this information secret? 

If you ask the mayor, he’ll regurgitate some nonsense about the fear of impacting ongoing litigation between the town and a former CAO. The town’s failed defence from Bay Street law firm Aird and Berlis claims the Advertiser’s request was too narrow, that it applies to private personnel matters and the town is not required to create records.

But that’s all a diversion. The real reason the town is taking any and all steps necessary to conceal this information is the criticism, embarrassment and subsequent fallout its release would create for town officials.

During the period covered by the FOI request, there was unprecedented staff turnover in Erin, with upwards of 20 people departing. Not all were terminated, but some were, including a few prominent senior staff members.

We won’t hazard a guess at the total severance figure, but we guarantee it would shock taxpayers and dwarf figures provided by the county’s seven more candid municipalities. Alas, again, it seems secrecy and saving face trump transparency and accountability in Erin.

So exactly how much did this debacle cost taxpayers? That will likely be the topic of the newspaper’s next FOI request. Just don’t hold your breath expecting any answers.