Trust eroded and time/money wasted

Well, that was unnecessarily painful. After almost two years of doing everything in their power to deny a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Erin officials decided late last week to release employee severance information sought by the Advertiser.

The latest odd move in a long list of perplexing developments was the town’s announcement of the six-year total – which was much higher than the six other municipalities in the county – in a YouTube video. On a Saturday evening no less.

But after two years of dealing with this gong show, nothing surprises us. It’s been a comedy of errors from the start.

First, the municipality, via its Bay Street law firm, tried to argue the Advertiser request was for one document that contained the exact six-year employee severance total in one convenient location. Town officials say they searched for this magical document but could not find it. Shocker.

Of course, the seven other municipalities that fulfilled the exact same request understood they would have to search for several records from 2012 through 2017.

Not surprisingly, the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) rejected the town’s ridiculous argument and ordered the town to conduct more searches and to clarify what/when records were destroyed. 

According to an affidavit from town clerk Lisa Campion, additional searches found just one document. She noted the dearth of findings may be attributed to the town’s policy of retaining personnel records for just three years.

So the majority of the records were destroyed then? Well, not exactly, town officials said. They could only say records “would have been destroyed.” We can’t find them, but we can’t say what happened to them either, they insisted. Unreal.

The house of cards seemed to collapse when the newspaper pointed out to the IPC and to the municipality that town policy states the records are to be retained for six years, not three. The IPC ordered the town to clarify this discrepancy and to specifically state what records were destroyed and when.

Then, all of a sudden, the elusive records were miraculously found in the town’s finance department during an epic town-initiated search that officials say took over 50 hours. Perhaps seeing the error of their ways, perhaps exhausted by coming up with new ways to keep the information secret, town officials decided to publicly release the information last Saturday.

Why not just release it from the start? Sure, there may have been some backlash, but as we’ve seen in the past, it would have been short-lived. And at least then town officials would be putting into practice their overused and disingenuous “open and transparent” mantra. 

Instead, motivated by what we can only guess was either stubbornness, misguided legal advice, a superiority complex, a complete misunderstanding of town policy and FOI laws, or an unfortunate combination of all the above, town officials chose the long, painful and costly route (we will soon try to ascertain just how costly). 

Several Erin residents offered this newspaper congratulatory messages upon hearing the town was releasing the severance information, but this doesn’t much feel like a win. That’s because it was never about us – it was always about uncovering the truth for taxpayers.

The entire ordeal is a powerful reminder to all municipal staff and council members that it’s always best to be open from the start. 

It’s also a good reminder of to whom they are ultimately accountable. It’s not the mayor or CAO and it’s certainly not the media. It’s local residents, whose high taxes ensure well-compensated civil servants have a job in the first place.

If this debacle is any indication of how they operate, how can Erin officials be trusted to be forthright with taxpayers on vital issues like a $120-million wastewater facility?