ERIN – Town officials here now say they can’t confirm severance records were destroyed, contrary to a May 9 Advertiser article stating that was the case.
“We never said that they were destroyed,” Erin communications officer Jessica Spina said in a May 13 telephone interview.
Spina insists she and Erin deputy clerk Lisa Campion made that assertion “very clear” to the Advertiser during a phone call last week, though the newspaper disputes that claim.
“Clearly there was a miscommunication between us over the phone,” said the communications officer.
“I think that you can appreciate the fact that when you see or hear something in a specific way, sometimes you assume that other people hear and see it the same way you are.”
Spina said the newspaper’s May 9 article, “especially your headline … made a very clear statement indicating” town severance records for 2012 to early 2016 were destroyed.
“The records (except one) weren’t found … it would be assumed that they’re destroyed. An assumption and a definite answer is two different things.”
Campion’s April 8 affidavit, written as part of an interim order from the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) of Ontario, suggests the town destroyed a majority of the records sought by the newspaper (related to severances paid to terminated employees from Jan. 1 2012 to Aug. 11, 2017).
Noting the town’s retention schedule states employee records are to be retained for three years after an employee leaves, Campion wrote that “any records beyond that time period would be destroyed.
“With respect to the subject matter of the request, this would mean that any such records from 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and early 2016 would have been destroyed, pursuant to the town’s retention policy and practices.”
“That doesn’t confirm that they’re destroyed,” Spina said of Campion’s affidavit – only that the records “would have been destroyed.”
Asked if the town is deliberately using elusive verbiage, Spina replied, “No, I am not playing with semantics to try to not answer questions.”
So if the town can’t confirm the records were destroyed, could the records still exist somewhere?
“Following Lisa’s search, there was one responsive record found,” Spina simply replied.
She later added, “That’s also assuming records were created … There’s so many different assumptions that you’re putting in there.”
If the town can’t confirm the records were destroyed but also can’t find them, Spina was asked if it’s possible the records were lost, moved to a location not covered by the search or permanently removed by someone.
“We cannot confirm whether or not records were destroyed,” Spina again repeated.
She added, “I can’t speculate, I wasn’t there. So that would, again, be an assumption.”
When it was pointed out records from 2015 and early 2016 “would have been destroyed” while both Spina and Campion were employed by the town, Spina said, “I’m not in charge of record management.”
When the Advertiser tried to clarify that Campion is in charge of records, Spina said only that Campion “didn’t destroy any records.”
Spina emailed the newspaper on May 8 to ask for corrections to the Advertiser’s online article (posted one day prior to newspaper distribution). But on May 13, despite voicing strong objection to the newspaper stating town records were destroyed, Spina said she is okay if the article was left as it is.
“At the end of the day, it’s your article and you’re going to write what you’re going to write – I can’t control that,” she said.
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 in Wellington, including the county, 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 the Bay Street law firm 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 knew, or 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 issued an interim order requiring the town to conduct another search and to submit an affidavit from the person(s) conducting the search.
During the IPC-ordered search, the town says it found just one record about a single employee for the period covered by the FOI request.
The town denied the Advertiser access to the record because it “relates to employment matters” and sharing it “would constitute an unjustified invasion of personal privacy.”
The IPC order also stated that if records once existed but were destroyed, the town must explain when that happened, as well its policies for record retention. Campion’s affidavit provides no timeline, but states human resources records “would be destroyed,” after three years.