Thursday, January 31, 2008

Closed-door sessions to select mass transit have drawn criticism (US)

Mayor rebuffs council over secrecy

Closed-door sessions to select mass transit have drawn criticism

By Laurie Au

Mayor Mufi Hannemann rejected accusations by several City Council members that he is keeping the public in the dark about how the technology for the multibillion-dollar fixed-guideway system is being chosen.

Hannemann also called on councilmembers who have opposed the panel to stop attempting to delay the project.

"I think what's happening is some people refused to let this project go forward and proceed as quickly as I would like to," Hannemann said yesterday after giving an update on the fixed-guideway project to the state House Transportation Committee. "They're trying to delay it, and my feeling is, get on board."

Hannemann responded to recent remarks by some City Council members who criticized his administration for letting a panel of experts meet behind close doors as they make the critical decision of what type of technology will be chosen for the planned mass transit system. He said the process has been transparent.

But Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz has asked the state Office of Information Practices to issue an opinion on whether the panel has to follow sunshine laws. "We're tired of business as usual and back-room deals," he said.

The administration has argued that the panel of five experts will be discussing proprietary information and having open meetings will slow the process. A decision on technology is expected at the end of February. Typically, the City Council is not involved in the procurement process.

"We're trying to find ways in which the Council can participate in the selection," Hannemann said. "It's an unprecedented step, but I really believe, given the interest in it, given my willingness to work with the legislative branch, I decided to go down this path."

Several councilmembers strongly opposed Hannemann's remarks, citing an ordinance passed in 2006 that says the City Council reserves the right to select the technology.

"That is exactly what Mufi Hannemann wanted," said Councilman Charles Djou. "He signed Bill 79, which spelled out that the legislative body should get involved with the procurement process. If Mufi Hannemann thought that was so bad, he should have vetoed the bill."

At a Council meeting last week, Councilman Todd Apo told members that the power ultimately remains with them because they can pass a bill to select the technology and they control the city's budget.

Hannemann said he is confident the members will agree with the panel's pending decision, and cannot imagine that the Council would pull the project's funding.

"Someone is going to have to answer to the people if they botch this process," Hannemann said. "I don't think that will happen at all. They have to be ready to take the heat if they want to delay it further after the panel comes out with a decision."

Hannemann told the Transportation Committee that the plan for the 30-mile system running from Kapolei to Ala Moana is on schedule, with a groundbreaking expected late next year. The cost is estimated at $3.47 billion, but interest and inflation bring the total closer to $5 billion.




© Honolulu Star-Bulletin --


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Behind closed doors - University of Windsor

Gord Henderson

Windsor Star

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Was it really about saving engineering students from the misery of five-minute shuttle rides? Or did fear of offending key University of Windsor supporters play a role in killing a downtown location for its $110-million engineering facility?

I guess we'll never know for sure, given that this publicly funded institution's board of governors made the most critical site decision in decades behind closed doors. Ontario taxpayers, like it or not, are contributing $40 million to this project. But they haven't heard, first-hand, the arguments that went into last week's historic rejection of a proposed $37-million partnership between the city and the university.

Most of us, I suspect, haven't a clue who sits on this absurdly cumbersome 35-member body (you might ask why legislation requires as many warm bodies to govern one modest Ontario university as it takes to govern all of Canada), let alone understand how they reached that fateful show-of-hands decision.

But some folks do want to know more. Readers have been asking, for instance, why there's nobody from city council on that board and yet Tom Burton, deputy mayor of Tecumseh, a town that's in a take-no-prisoners war with Windsor, is a board member.

Burton, by all accounts, is a straight shooter and man of honour. So maybe he did the right thing and sat out that vote and the debates that preceded it. But human nature being what it is, it's hard to imagine a Tecumseh politician not taking satisfaction in seeing Windsor's dream for downtown revitalization crushed. With the scuppering of Tecumseh's Ice Track aspirations in 2006 still a raw nerve, it would take a remarkably forgiving individual not to see divine retribution -- sweet payback if you prefer -- in last week's vote.


Probably the best-known board member is automotive analyst Dennis DesRosiers. An acknowledged global expert on the industry, DesRosiers' views on the location of an engineering school with major automotive components would carry a lot of weight. And justifiably so.

Problem is, DesRosiers is viewed as their most vociferous foe by Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis and most of the current council. DesRosiers lowered the rhetoric over the past year and made efforts to reach out to city hall when provincial funding for an expanded engineering school was announced. But, unfair as it might seem, he'll always be seen in certain jaundiced quarters as the guy with the horns, someone unlikely to promote a deal that would make the current city hall leadership look good.

Also on the board is Matthew Moroun, vice-president of Centra Inc. and son of Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun.

Matthew Moroun is a respected businessman and the bridge company has a hard-earned reputation as a good corporate citizen and a solid university partner. I'm betting he didn't vote, given the circumstances, but if he did I'm sure it was for all the right reasons.

But what if other board members, mindful of the bridge company's high-stakes standoff with city hall over plans for a second bridge, became nervous about choosing sides in entering a big-dollar partnership with the city?

Could some have worried unduly about alienating their bridge partner, which agreed in 2006, when few others were stepping up, to donate $2 million to the university's stadium complex as part of a $5-million agreement doubling their payment to the university for operating the bridge duty-free shop? Matthew Moroun said at the time that the donation was partly goodwill but also a partnership. "We're partners, the furtherance of the university and making it a better school and the bridge an easier and better place to cross every day, it goes hand in hand. We can't get along without them."

And then there's Tony Toldo. You and I know that Toldo, Windsor's leading philanthropist, is a big-hearted guy without a vindictive bone in his body. But I wonder. Could some of the folks on that board (and he's not a member) have been fretting that Toldo, a huge university supporter and the driving force in bringing a medical school to the Anthony P. Toldo Health Education Centre on the current campus, might be less than pleased to see a massive expansion project located away from that campus?

If they were concerned about that possibility, I'm sure they misread this honourable guy. And that would be truly a shame, because this project deserved to be judged on its merits.

© The Windsor Star 2008


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Tax records should be off limits, Mulroney lawyer says

Tax records should be off limits, Mulroney lawyer says

Ethics committee adds former Privy Council clerk to witness list


January 30, 2008

OTTAWA -- A lawyer for Brian Mulroney sent a blistering letter yesterday to the chair of the House of Commons ethics committee, arguing vehemently that Airbus, personal tax records and the cash expenses of the former prime minister and his wife should be off limits to MPs.

Members of the ethics committee met behind closed doors yesterday for the first time in weeks and approved a list of about a dozen witnesses they want to question in February about Mr. Mulroney's business dealings with German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber.

Committee chair Paul Szabo, a Liberal MP, told reporters committee members discussed whether to use their summons powers to obtain Mr. Mulroney's tax records, but did not make a decision.

The MPs did agree to issue a formal summons to appear to any witness on the list who does not show up voluntarily.

The committee has added Jocelyne Bourgon to the witness list.

She was the clerk of the Privy Council in 1997 when the then-Liberal government settled out of court with Mr. Mulroney for $2.1-million in relation to the RCMP investigation of the government's 1988 purchase of Airbus planes for Air Canada, which was then a Crown corporation.

Mr. Mulroney's lawyer, Guy Pratte, argued in the letter that any review of Airbus is beyond the committee's mandate.

He noted the RCMP wrote in 2003 that after an extensive investigation, no evidence of criminality was found.

But what appears to be of particular concern is the committee's plans to hear testimony related to transfers of cash from the Prime Minister's Office to the Mulroneys at their 24 Sussex Dr. residence.

"There is absolutely nothing in [independent government adviser David Johnston's] report or any mandate that you may have that would remotely justify inviting witnesses to testify about the life of the Mulroney family while at 24 Sussex, almost 25 years ago," Mr. Pratte writes.

The committee has called Mr. Mulroney's former chef, François Martin, to testify about claims he made in the 1994 book On the Take by Stevie Cameron that he was regularly asked to carry envelopes of cash from the PMO to Mr. Mulroney's wife, Mila, at 24 Sussex.

Mr. Mulroney's former chief of staff, Norman Spector, has recently stated that his appearance before the committee will include the presentation of documents that will "identify the source of large quantities of cash reported at 24 Sussex."

In Ms. Cameron's book, the man responsible for Progressive Conservative party funds, David Angus - who currently sits as a Mulroney-appointed Senator - says the cash payments were legal advances for party-related expenses incurred by the Mulroneys.

"On its face, Mr. Spector's 'evidence' has clearly nothing to do with your inquiry and it would not only be grossly unfair to allow it to be given under the protective cloak of parliamentary immunity, but would attest to the deliberate abuse of the Committee's process to maliciously cause as much damage as possible to Mr. Mulroney and his family's reputation, for partisan purposes," Mr. Pratte wrote.

Mr. Szabo insisted yesterday that the committee was treating Mr. Mulroney fairly and noted that Mr. Spector was invited before the committee knew he would discuss cash exchanges inside the Mulroney PMO.


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Time for the government to dispel the information fog

Time for the government to dispel the information fog


Special to Globe and Mail Update

January 29, 2008 at 6:56 PM EST

It is often said that "No news is good news." It is beginning to seem as if the government has added to that adage, "Good news is no news."

A recent editorial in The Globe and Mail spoke of "the fog that has settled over the [Afghan] detainees": It was referring to the revelation that Canada had stopped turning over prisoners to the Afghan government in November, but had not disclosed this to Parliament or the public.

Since becoming Information Commissioner a year ago, it is my experience that it is not only the situation with detainees in Afghanistan that has become obscured. Indeed, a fog over information, even when the news is positive, has crept, little by little, over the government's activities.

As Information Commissioner, my job is to receive and investigate complaints by people who have requested access to information that is under the control of government institutions and are not satisfied with the response they have received. My staff of investigators is kept more than busy responding to these: Our caseload of complaints has doubled in the past year. But providing information in this way, under the Access to Information Act, is not the only, or necessarily the best, way for the government to communicate with its citizens.

Before the Access to Information Act came into force in 1983, people made informal requests for information and the government, under its own initiative, released information in a variety of ways, such as reading rooms, press releases and press conferences. The Act recognizes the value of these alternative methods of obtaining information when it states in subsection 2(2): "This Act is intended to complement and not replace existing procedures for access to government information and is not intended to limit in any way access to the type of government information that is normally available to the general public." Today, in this 25th anniversary year of the Act, it is beginning to seem as if the Act is the only way to gain access to government-controlled information. This is not how it should be.

And this is not just my opinion. In the report this month of the Independent Panel On Canada's Future Role In Afghanistan, also known as the Manley report, one of the recommendations is that "the Government should provide the public with franker and more frequent reporting on events in Afghanistan, offering more assessments of Canada's role and giving greater emphasis to the diplomatic and reconstruction efforts, as well as those of the military." That is a unanimous recommendation from a distinguished panel that includes former high-ranking government officials.

If the current government were to adopt the same views, and heads of institutions were to order more proactive disclosure, they just might inspire greater trust and confidence in Canadians and encourage them to hold a more positive opinion of their institutions. It is only a matter of leadership and political will.

While it may be explicable, if not laudable, for any government to want to withhold bad news, it is difficult to understand why even good news is not being released. Surely the fact that Canada decided not to turn over any more detainees to the local authorities in Afghanistan, thereby removing the risk of them being tortured, was good news. If even good news is not disseminated, you cannot blame Canadians for wondering how much bad news might be lurking in government records, waiting to be uncovered. It is true that the government should not reveal any information that could bring harm to those who serve in Afghanistan. But if the government's position is that everything to do with detainees, and much of what pertains to Afghanistan, is a security matter and is secret by definition, then the Access to Information Act recognizes the importance of protecting certain information and contains exemptions that can be used. The role of my office is to ensure that those exemptions are being applied appropriately.

Given that the security of our country is well protected by these exemptions, it is my view that government institutions, such as the Department of National Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to name the most prominent of those that hold the most sensitive and secret information, must be exemplary in the free and voluntary release of other information. They must proactively make available all the information they can that is not sensitive or secret within the terms of the Act's exemptions. Releasing information only when someone sees fit to make a formal access to information request should not be the norm, but the exception.

In the normal course of events at the Department of National Defence, a summary of the types of information that have been released in response to access requests is made available in reading rooms and on its website. The whole of that information, as well as other information that might be of interest to the public, should also be released in this manner as a matter of course. The previous government ordered this to be done for certain types of records, such as travel and hospitality expenses, contracts awarded, reclassification of positions, and grant and contribution awards. This is a good start, but much more remains of interest to Canadians that is hidden from easy view, when disclosure should be the norm.

Transparency has become the buzzword of the moment in government. It is time to make it a priority and a reality. The Manley report is such an opportunity. It would be a shame to relegate it to the fog of obscurity.

Robert Marleau is the Information Commissioner of Canada.


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AG uncovers problems at Information office

AG uncovers problems at Information office


Canadian Press

January 27, 2008 at 5:08 PM EST

OTTAWA — A new investigation has slammed the Office of the Information Commissioner for financial irregularities, raising echoes of the privacy commissioner scandal of 2003 involving George Radwanski.

Auditor-General Sheila Fraser found evidence of favouritism, rule-breaking, overly generous payments to staff and dubious use of taxpayer dollars, most of it occurring before the current information commissioner arrived a year ago.

In a report dated Oct. 2 and obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, Ms. Fraser says the office disregarded government rules for hiring, promotion, travel, bonuses and gifts to staff.

The report found no abuses on the part of former commissioner John Reid, and there were no suggestions of fraud or criminal wrongdoing.

Ms. Fraser recommended, however, that the office revamp its policies to align them with Treasury Board rules.

The information commissioner is a federal ombudsman appointed for a seven-year term by cabinet to investigate complaints by Canadians who've been denied information requested under the Access to Information Act, sometimes taking their cases to court.

Ms. Fraser's report cites one case in which a senior executive who already met the bilingualism requirements for her position was nevertheless sent to France for a month of French-language training in July 2006.

Ruth McEwan, director-general of corporate services, paid for her own living expenses and flight to the course in Bordeaux, but taxpayers picked up the tuition ($757.61) and the flight back ($2,358.63). There was no indication she used any vacation time for the trip.

Ms. McEwan's position has since been eliminated, though she is still on the payroll awaiting an opening elsewhere in the civil service, said a spokeswoman for the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC).

The audit also found that the top four executives at the agency were awarded the highest possible annual bonuses, typically worth 3 per cent of salary, without proper justification.

And seven of the 10 people recruited in 2006-2007 were hired without advertising the positions and therefore without allowing competition for the jobs.

In another case, an outside contractor was appointed to a job in a section of the agency where he had previously been on an internal board that chose job candidates.

"We believe that he had an undue advantage that may have helped him obtain the position," says the audit report. "We also found that there was no evidence on file that he had the required education or security clearance required for the position."

An OIC spokeswoman said the person no longer works for the agency.

Other employees were reclassified into higher-paying positions with no evidence the salary increases were justified.

There were also contracting irregularities. "One contract was terminated but was then amended to pay for work that was no longer expected to be done," says the report.

And in June 2006, all 43 employees in the office were handed $100 gift certificates for merchandise at a local mall, the Rideau Centre, to mark public service week. "We are . . . concerned that Parliamentarians and Canadians may see this generous gift to all staff as an inappropriate uses of public funds," Ms. Fraser said.

Assistant commissioner Suzanne Legault said Robert Marleau, who arrived as the new commissioner on Feb. 1 last year, specifically asked Ms. Fraser to investigate human-resource issues because he was concerned about potential problems.

Mr. Reid, the previous commissioner, left office in September 2006 after his seven-year term and extensions lapsed. At least two of his senior executives departed soon after as Mr. Marleau reorganized the top layer of the agency.

Ms. Legault said the new executive team began working to clean up the hiring, promotion and bonus situation even before Ms. Fraser's report.

"It wasn't us guys, it was the previous guys," she said. "We've been extremely busy in fixing these things."

Ms. Legault added there is not enough documentation in the files to determine why many dubious decisions were made.

The 2003 scandal that centred on former privacy commissioner Radwanski also uncovered evidence that hiring, promotion and bonus rules had been broken.

But there was evidence of expense abuses as well, leading to a lengthy RCMP probe and the laying of fraud and breach-of-trust charges against Mr. Radwanski.

After he was fired in 2003, Mr. Marleau was brought in on an interim basis to help clean up the mess in the privacy office.

The OIC had itself been exempt from the Access to Information Act until last year, when the Federal Accountability Act extended freedom-of-information to more parliamentary bodies and Crown corporations.


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Defence Department flouting information policy, Globe finds

Defence Department flouting information policy, Globe finds


Special to The Globe and Mail

January 26, 2008

The Defence Department has been ignoring federal access to information policy in an attempt to avoid releasing large chunks of material related to individuals detained during Canada's Afghanistan mission.

Last year, The Globe and Mail submitted several requests under the access to information law for material sent by the Department of National Defence regarding detainees captured by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan during 2006.

The department responded in May that almost all such documents could not be released because they constituted cabinet confidences, a special designation that means requested material is outside the access act.

Most of the pages released to The Globe were virtually blank, even though they were routine e-mails between defence and foreign affairs officials.

Long-standing Treasury Board policy requires any department to obtain approval from the Privy Council Office before invoking the cabinet-confidence provision to withhold information. The Globe complained to Robert Marleau, the Information Commissioner. According to an investigation report sent to The Globe, "PCO was not consulted by National Defence."

Only after intervention by the Information Commissioner did the department process the material correctly. PCO reviewed the records and confirmed they did not constitute cabinet confidences.

National Defence was then obliged to release additional information last month concerning the processing of detainees prior to the new agreement Canada negotiated with the Afghanistan government in May, 2007, regarding detainees.

The released documents remain heavily censored, however, because the Information Commissioner agreed with the Defence Department that the remaining information withheld properly qualifies as operational security material which, if released, "could reasonably be expected to be injurious to the defence of Canada or its allies."

This attempt at an end run around the Access to Information Act is the latest in a series of measures and tactics by the Defence Department to quash the release of any information concerning detainees since The Globe reported last January that some may have been abused by Canadian soldiers in April, 2006. Beginning March 12, all access requests for detainee and other Afghan-related documents sent to the military will have to be sent through General Rick Hillier's office, known as the Strategic Joint Staff. The Globe reported recently that the SJS also unleashed a so-called tiger team of officers in March to scrutinize requests and hunt down material that had been previously released to ensure it wasn't released a second time.

A document recently obtained from the Department of Justice that was prepared for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson for Question Period contains a section titled Classified Detainee Information and suggests points he should make if asked about the issue.

Suggestions include:

We don't want the Taliban to know how successful we have been on operations. This could be a threat to the security of our soldiers.

This information is also classified to protect the identity of the detainees. If detainees give us information, this could place them in danger of retribution.


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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Review questions cabinet secrecy rule (Aus)

Review questions cabinet secrecy rule


January 30, 2008 - 1:54PM

A review of Queensland's Freedom of Information (FOI) laws will consider relaxing the controversial 30-year cabinet secrecy rule.

Premier Anna Bligh last September announced an independent review of the laws in a bid to make the state government more accountable and make use of the latest technology.

Dr David Solomon, who is leading the review, presented Ms Bligh on Wednesday with a 200-page discussion paper on changes to the laws.

He said the FOI Act was well intentioned when it was introduced 15 years ago - to enable public access to government information - but had become too complicated.

"It's become much more restrictive than was the original intention, particularly through the use of the cabinet exemption," Dr Solomon said.

"It was changed by the parliament on a number of occasions, and each change made it more difficult to get information out."

In most Westminster-style governments, official records of cabinet decisions and submissions are kept secret for around 30 years.

The discussion paper explores whether a time limit should be imposed on how long cabinet matters can be exempt from FOI requests, and if a "public interest test" should be introduced for documents that would otherwise be exempt.

Dr Solomon said it was difficult to justify the purpose of the cabinet exemption rule, which allows ministers to take documents into the cabinet room "for no purpose other to avoid them being accessible through FOI".

"The very existence of this bolt hole sends the wrong message to public servants about the desirability of openness," the paper says.

Other issues explored include whether access rights to documents are "stuck in a time warp" with the advent of new technology like the internet and email.

The paper also questions whether Queensland should move towards the "Swedish FOI approach", where most official documents are publicly available, and whether the costs of making FOI requests are reasonable.

Ms Bligh said Queensland already granted nearly 90 per cent of applications for documents sought through FOI.

"That is comparable with other states, but I want to provide even greater accessibility and transparency," she said.

"The challenge is to deliver on that commitment without compromising personal privacy or essential government functions."

The public has until March 7 to comment on the paper.

Dr Solomon is due to submit his final report and recommendations for cabinet consideration by the end of May.

Changes to the laws are expected to be in place before the end of the year.


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Monday, January 28, 2008

It's time to stand against the government's secrecy

It's time to stand against the government's secrecy

Contra Costa Times

Article Launched: 01/27/2008 08:13:19 PM PST

EVERY PUBLIC Records Act request filed in California is a test.

Want to know your local government's commitment to transparency? Go ask for something that you have a right to see: A worker's salary. A dog license. A building inspector's report. A letter to or from the mayor.

What happened? Were you simply told no?

Were you told your request was burdensome?

Were you asked why you wanted it?

Were you asked to fill out a form?

Did it take an unreasonable amount of time?

Did someone in a powerful government position tell you that complying with the law to allow you to review records simply isn't their job?

Did they tell you that you asked for too much information?

If you asked for "all" of something -- say "all" letters to a mayor or a supervisor -- were you asked to narrow your request to a specific letter?

Did someone in the government ask for an extension of time when all you did was ask to look at some papers?

Was the document you were shown pocked with the black smudges of a censor's pen?

Did you get a letter that began, say, by stating that "transparency is paramount" to so and so government agency but then listed a bunch of excuses why your request can't be fulfilled?

Could you simply not shake the sense that you got jerked around, that you encountered a concerted effort to do everything other than give you what you asked for?

Did you get the sense that the person to whom you made the request, at best, didn't

understand the law and their duty as a public servant?

Did someone in the government tell you that if you don't like their answer, go ahead and sue them?

If you had to assign a grade to the experience, would it be anything less than the "A" that we should all demand of government at any level?

Welcome to the reality of requesting public records in this state, a reality that exists despite overwhelming laws and conditional rights that demand disclosure.

More than three years after voters amended the state constitution by passing Proposition 59 to require that government bureaucrats take the broadest possible view of disclosing public records on a request-by-request basis, too many of those requests still result in failing grades.

The question for 2008 is, What are we going to do about it?

The time for timidity about government access has long passed. Those who continue to counsel conciliation in the face of government recalcitrance, no matter how well intended, are enabling an unresponsive government.

It is not an overstatement to say that it is the duty of both journalists and ordinary residents of this state to aggressively confront and challenge the governmental roadblocks to public information.

It is here where the words of Ronald Reagan come to mind: Trust but verify.

What, then, are we supposed to do when the bureaucrats tell us to trust them but block the path to verification?

I keep on my desk a copy of a book published in 2000 titled "In Search of Deep Throat -- The Greatest Political Mystery of Our Time." It was written by Leonard Garment, who succeeded John Dean as White House counsel under Richard Nixon and escaped the disgrace of Watergate.

In the book, Garment misidentifies a Nixon aide, John Sears, as the secret Washington Post source "Deep Throat." We now know Deep Throat was FBI Agent Mark Felt. But despite that error, Garment's writings on the lessons of Watergate still hold value, and I am often drawn to a passage on Page 250 in which he offers a pretty darned good definition of news:

"It is assumed that the most important -- and thus the most newsworthy -- things that happen in public and corporate life are kept secret because, if known, they would damage powerful people.

"Thus, what is newsworthy about an organization, almost by definition, is whatever the organization wants to hide."

"It follows in this view," Garment continues, "that a good reporter is one who is one who has an adversarial relationship with whatever people or organizations he or she is covering."

Garment's words no longer apply only to journalists. They are appropriate, really, to anyone who intersects with government, wants information and encounters impediments -- impediments that should not exist.

The only answer is to fight back. A government that is not subordinate to the people is a government of tyranny.

Voters didn't pass Prop. 59 for it to be ignored or parsed to bits by government lawyers bent on maintaining secrecy.

They passed it because the government -- and the government's information -- belongs to them.

More than three years later, too many failing grades remain. Timidity in response to tyranny is no response at all.

The time to fight -- to, in Garment's words, pursue adversarial relations with power -- is long overdue.

Peele is a Times investigative reporter and the winner of numerous awards for reporting on freedom of information issues. The Watchdog appears monthly. He invites reader questions and comments on public records and government access issues. Reach him at


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Friday, January 25, 2008

Seekers of information win one against Liberal government secrecy (BC)

Seekers of information win one against Liberal government secrecy

Vaughn Palmer

Vancouver Sun

Friday, January 25, 2008

VICTORIA - Environmentalists have scored a hard-won victory in the fight to make the B.C. Liberals show more respect for the access to information law.

A group of eight environmental associations had complained directly to the information commissioner, alleging an across-government effort to frustrate their requests for records and other information.

The group cited numerous examples of requests stalled, records censored and unreasonable fees charged. The evidence covered three ministries over a period of two years.

The government's first response was to try to get the entire case dismissed. The Liberals argued that complaints under the provincial law had to be heard on a case-by-case basis. Aggregated complaints were not appropriate.

They would surely have understood the consequences of splitting the case into myriad separate complaints.

The eight organizations probably wouldn't have the resources or the time to go that route. Plus any pattern of systematic discrimination would be missed if the complaints were heard piecemeal.

Happily, the government failed to suffocate the case in the cradle. "We determined there was a basis for conducting a systematic investigation and that such an investigation could be conducted fairly and without prejudice," information commissioner David Loukidelis ruled.

But he did exclude some aspects of the initial complaint. Allegations of undue censorship were set aside because there were not enough viable examples to establish a pattern. For similar reasons, the commissioner set aside the case against two of the three targeted ministries, agriculture and forests.

That put the focus on a single ministry -- environment -- and allegations that it was responding to requests for information with excessive delays and unreasonable fees.

The investigation looked into 34 requests over the two-year period. The commissioner's office pressed the ministry for details on delays and fees, plus comparable data for how other requests are handled across government. The ministry served up a grab bag of excuses for not being able to get to the bottom of things, from incompatible data-tracking systems to inexplicable gaps in the record to inconsistencies and errors.

Whether this added to suspicions about the government's good intentions, the commissioner was too polite to say.

Again, happily, the lead investigator, Catherine Tully, persisted. By the end, she had enough data to identify an unmistakable pattern.

The environment ministry was taking an average of 74 days to respond to requests for information from the group of eight. The government-wide average is 45 days, never mind that the law allows no more than 30 days.

"An extraordinarily long average processing time," Loukidelis observed.

The investigation also found that the ministry was dinging the group of eight for fees at roughly twice the rate of others seeking information. "It appeared there might be some basis for the allegation of a systematic problem," the commissioner concluded, with dry understatement.

Rather than proceed further with the investigation, the commissioner presented the preliminary evidence to the ministry. Whereupon the government sued for peace.

The settlement, shaped by the information commissioner and agreed to by the eight associations, was announced this week along with the findings of the investigation. The environment ministry was persuaded to adopt a detailed plan to improve its handling of information requests in general and requests from the group of eight in particular.

Better tracking of requests. Prompt responses. Minimal resort to fees. More respect for the spirit of the law. Liaison with the group of eight. And periodic reporting on the handling of requests, with the first report card due at the end of this month.

The agreement -- or backdown -- was hailed as unprecedented.

"The first time any individual ministry has been spotlighted like this," said Darrell Evans, executive director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. "The fact that they've got to do a report card is really significant."

Other ministries take note: "It's a good recipe for how you should behave handing requests. That's never really been put down in this nice, obvious way before."

But Evans and others were careful not to get carried away, given the unusual circumstances in this case. "The complainants were sophisticated groups with extensive experience using the access provisions of the act," as Louk-idelis noted. The eight were also able to draw on the resources and expertise of the environmental law clinic at the University of Victoria.

In essence, the environment ministry was shamed into reforming its handling of information requests by a well-prepared, strongly backed and stubborn group of complainants.

No guarantee this will persuade the Liberals to be any more forthcoming in handling routine requests for information.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008


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HeraldNet: Secrecy a threat to public records (US)

Published: Friday, January 25, 2008

Secrecy a threat to public records

A former lawmaker says the Legislature must act to protect information access.

By Katya Yefimova, Herald Writer

OLYMPIA -- Washington state residents are on the verge of losing their constitutionally granted right to know what goes on in local governments, an open-government activist says.


Former state Rep. Toby Nixon, president of the Washington State Coalition for Open Government, said he hopes the Legislature will take action this year to protect that right.


"Without access to information about what the government is doing, we lose control," Nixon said. "Whoever has the most knowledge has the most power."


The nonprofit group hopes that lawmakers during this legislative session will restrict the use of attorney-client privilege, protect public access to government workers' birth dates and push for recording of closed government meetings.


Most city, county and state government records and meetings are required to be open to the public, under state law. Some records, however, fall under the numerous exemptions and aren't available to the public.


These exemptions often lead to lawsuits. Because judges tend to interpret them very broadly, exemptions keep expanding to cover more and more types of record.


There are reasons that the state needs to keep some records exempt. A lawmaker is proposing to keep birth dates exempt from public disclosure. Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, supports the bill. He said birth dates and other personal information obtained by criminals can ruin people's lives.


Still, State Attorney General Rob McKenna said use of exemption ought to be more limited. "Privilege should only apply when there's litigation or a real threat of litigation," he said.


Nixon said restoring the original intent of one of the attorney-client privilege is of highest priority to the coalition. The privilege protects clients from having their attorneys testify against them.


"We are continuing to see the use of attorney-client privilege exemption expanding and we believe it's the greatest threat to open government," Nixon said.


The coalition will also be pushing for audio recordings of executive sessions, government meetings closed to the public, Nixon said. The recordings would be protected from disclosure and only reviewed by a judge in case of a lawsuit.


There are practical reasons for government to go into executive sessions, but it is impossible for the public to know what is going on in these meetings, said Timothy Ford, assistant attorney general for government accountability.


Having a record is especially beneficial for newly elected officials, who can use it to understand the history of some of the issues, he said.


Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, said he will sponsor the legislation, requested by the attorney general's office.


"People tend to get carried away in executive session," Miloscia said. "This is one way for citizens to eliminate this perception of illegality."


Although many people worry a tape might get out, Miloscia said he is confident the judicial branch will make sure this doesn't happen.


Another issue on the coalition's agenda is to keep public employees' birth dates open to the public -- a provision threatened by legislation proposing that birth dates be exempt from disclosure.


Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, is the lawmaker who sponsored the bill last year to help fight identity theft. Birth dates, she said, are often used to steal information. "Identity theft is such a big deal," Appleton said, "I think it trumps certain things."


This change, Nixon said, will make it very difficult to match employee data with lists containing important information, such as lists of felons and sex offenders.


But Appleton said employees' Social Security numbers and their mothers' maiden names -- not currently exempt -- are bigger and more important tools for matching employee data.


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Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Without publicity there can be no public support, and without public support every nation must decay."

-- Benjamin Disraeli

The decision-making process

Windsor Star

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The University of Windsor's $110-million Centre of Engineering Innovation promises to bolster the reputation of both the school and community as a focal point for research and development in Canada. When the school's doors open in 2010, there should also be significant spinoffs in terms of job creation and investment for the area. There's no question of this important project's value.

What has been an ongoing issue is the location of the campus, which will house 1,800 students and faculty members. And, at the very least, the decision this week by the university's board of governors to build the centre on campus -- as opposed to downtown -- comes as a great disappointment.

As we have pointed out, the case for building the engineering school downtown was both clear and compelling. A core site would strengthen the school's bond with the city, bolster the image of both, while dramatically and dynamically transforming the core.

Certainly, no one had worked harder to convince the university of the core's benefits than Larry Horwitz, the indefatigable head of the Downtown Windsor Business Improvement Association. As he said after the decision: The university has "missed out on a vision."

"I think they missed out on a having a showpiece of a facility on the river. I think they missed out on fundraising opportunities. If something is new and unique, people are more inclined to be a (financial) part of that," said Horwitz.

The arguments against the downtown, as expressed after the board of governors' meeting, were considerably less than compelling: It might be inconvenient for students. It would mean foregoing a chance to make the university look more attractive to prospective students. It would eliminate the "on-campus experience."

Criticism was also levelled at the city for not providing a specific offer. But there was a framework for serious negotiations, of which the university's administrators approved. It's regrettable the board of governors couldn't even endorse that course of action.

Another issue is the board's secretive decision-making process. This far-reaching decision was made behind closed doors. The university made no concerted effort to consult the community on the engineering school site. This, despite the fact that the university is a public body funded with public money. Certainly, the board has a mandate to consider the interests of students and faculty, but it can't ignore its broader responsibilities to the city and region that are attached to spending public money.

The board must spend money to achieve maximum efficiency and impact. The downtown campus offered that opportunity, particularly at a time when the local economy is hurting and the university had a chance to do something to significantly bolster the city's core and image. The fact is that successful universities -- like Waterloo and Sir Wilfrid Laurier just up the road -- are embracing downtown campuses. Satellite campuses help struggling cores, and they have a positive impact on both commercial and residential development, as well as job creation.

Just a few days ago, the University of Alberta and city of Edmonton proudly opened an $86.5-million downtown campus with university president Indira Samarasekera calling the project "a physical symbol of the university's strong tie to the community and our commitment to community engagement and citizenship that underpins our vision." That is an important statement.

We celebrate the decision to build the Centre of Engineering Innovation and look forward to its contributions to the community's well-being. The problem is a decision-making process at the board of governors' level that could have made this project mean so much more.

© The Windsor Star 2008

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Noble Wins Freedom of Information Victory

York University professor David Noble sought information in February 2004 from Simon Fraser University's university/industry liaison office on SFU's spin-off commercial ventures.

In a landmark ruling, adjudicator Catherine Boies Parker from the office of British Columbia's Information and Privacy Commissioner has rejected a Simon Fraser University claim that documents in a company created by the university are exempt from the province's freedom of information laws.

David Noble, a professor at York University, had requested copies of all records relating to two spin-off companies in the possession of SFU's university/ industry liaison office. While initially agreeing to make the records available, SFU then changed its position, arguing the records were in the custody and control of SF Univentures, an incorporated entity created and wholly owned by SFU.

Upon investigation, the adjudicator found that SF Univentures operates only as a holding company for SFU, that all of its directors are SFU employees, that it has no location or staff independent of SFU and that it is governed under the direction of SFU, and exists in order to promote SFU's interests.

"SF Univentures is, in a very real sense, nothing more than an instrument through which SFU acts," the decision notes, and therefore "records under the control of SF Univentures should be treated as being under the control of SFU."

Noble described the ruling as a major victory. "The shell game is over," he said. "Universities no longer can set up dummy corporations to shield commercial activities from public scrutiny."

The University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria were joint intervenors in the case, saying they each had created a corporation with similar functions to SF Univentures to provide services to the private sector. The UBC/UVic submission argued that when public bodies provide services to the private sector, the public body does not have custody nor exercise control over records unless the parties sign a contract to the contrary.

The B.C. Freedom of Infor-mation and Privacy Association also intervened and noted that the records in question related to SFU's core research mandate by "exploiting university research in the marketplace and holding the university's interests in such ventures," with the resulting revenue flowing back to the university.

Further, FIPA asserted that SF Univentures was SFU's agent, conducting certain aspects of SFU's business, and that the agreement under which SF Univentures operates is not arms-length as SFU controls both parties and as such the contract.

CAUT also intervened and likewise argued that the records at issue related to SFU's core function, that SFU is the sole shareholder of SF Univentures and that SFU elects the corporation's directors and can replace them.

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Secrecy does not become usually respected Sea Grant

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A usually respected research and educational arm of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University acts like a turtle hiding in its shell when confronted by a scrappy property rights group based in Bay County.

Save Our Shoreline Inc. is suing the Michigan Sea Grant Program in Bay County Circuit Court for a mailing list and information used in the production and distribution of a 12-page pamphlet on beach grooming.

Sea Grant is a joint program of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University for research, education and outreach on coastal issues.

It's a valuable endeavor.

Now tainted with the U-M Freedom of Information coordinator's decision that the mailing list and other information regarding the brochure, including e-mails, remain secret.

SOS is dead-right in its insistence that the information is public.

The Michigan Freedom of Information Act allows few exceptions to the rule that information paid for with public money and held by publicly funded offices be available for public inspection.

Sea Grant, by any definition, is a public institution, just like its parent universities.

The information it gathers and holds - published or not - is public property, and should be available to anyone upon demand.

Even to SOS, which makes no secret about what it wants to do with the mailing list.

The group wants to counter claims made in the Sea Grant brochure about beach-grooming activities allowed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

In publishing and mailing its brochure, U-M and Sea Grant stepped right into the shifting sands of a long-running debate.

SOS, the DEQ and the Army Corps of Engineers have, at various times, taken widely divergent views on what to do with plants that have sprung up on Great Lakes bottom lands exposed by low water levels.

Legislation in Lansing also has entered the fray with short-term fixes to shoreline problems that still aren't fully understood.

All sides to the debate have lately united to control the invasive plant phragmites. A federally funded demonstration project in Hampton Township aims to find the best combination of mowing, burning and blasting with herbicides to kill off the tenacious, invasive plants that spread like something out of a bad science fiction movie.

Sea Grant and the universities gain nothing in these shoreline debates by hiding information from SOS or anyone else.

Their claim that they are protecting the privacy of those who received the brochures made and mailed with public money is nonsense.

These researchers and educators should regain the respect they have lost with their pettiness over patently public information.

Declare a truce in this court battle and give Save Our Shoreline what it wants.

The debate over beach grooming will not be won or lost with such fine lines drawn in the sand.

It will be settled only through careful research, education and hearty, well-informed debate.

You know - freedom of information.

©2008 Bay City Times

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

RTKNS Use of Google Analytics

At the bottom of the entry page to the RTKNS website there is a notice stating that at the end of December 2007, we would review that traffic information collected and decide whether or not to continue using Google Analytics (GA). Note the information we collect does not identify individuals who visit our site or blog.

As we are still working to ensure that the RTK message is being heard throughout our target region of Nova Scotia, we still require the visitation numbers and rough geographic information (city-level only) made available by using GA.

Therefore we will continue to use GA for the next year and review again at the end of December 2008.

Your feedback is appreciated. If you have any concerns or questions about our use of GA please contact us at

Thank you,
Greg Pemberton
RTKNS Web Admin

'Culture of silence' in schools: report; Mother says secrecy cost her her son

'Culture of silence' in schools: report; Mother says secrecy cost her her son

Posted 6 days ago

A culture of silence in which teachers failed to sound alarm bells about the dangerous environment at a troubled Toronto high school cost 15-year-old Jordan Manners his life, the slain boy's mother said yesterday.

Laureen Small made the comments as she responded to a report commissioned in the wake of the May shooting death of her son at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute.

The 1,000-page report, among other things, cited a culture of silence in which students and staff fear to come forward - leading to unreported incidents.

At a news conference, Small said that finding stood out for her among the report's 126 recommendations to address school safety.

"I sent my son to a school were I thought it would be a better school for him," said Small. "He was a gifted child.

"Teachers saw things and they kept silent, and for that my son lost his life."

Gerry Connelly, director of education at the Toronto District School board, told Small, "there will be change as a result of your son."

Last week, the school's former principal and two vice-principals were charged with failing to report an alleged sexual assault on a student in a school washroom in October 2006 even though they were made aware of the incident.

Manners, a Grade 9 student, was shot and killed in a hallway at C.W. Jefferys, a school located near the Jane-Finch corridor, an area of Toronto noted for years for its high crime rate.

The School Community Safety Advisory Panel's report, released last week, uncovered an alarming number of unreported incidents of violence and sexual harassment at specific schools in Toronto.

The report recommends, among other things, using dogs to sniff out guns hidden in school lockers.


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Monday, January 21, 2008

Secrecy has no place in transit decisions

Secrecy has no place in transit decisions

By Jeff Nagel - The Tri-City News - January 20, 2008


They collect your money — $500 million a year from property and gas taxes combined — and they spend it by the bucket on the transit, roads and bridges we all rely on to get around.

TransLink is one of the most in-your-face forms of local government and it's no surprise citizens take intense interest in its deliberations.

A fare increase comes directly from the pockets of users.

A change in a bus schedule may decide whether people can use transit or are forced into their cars.

A rapid transit line can lift real estate prices and improve liveability.

And the replacement of an antique bridge like the Pattullo can end a daily danger for commuters.

What's more, in order to finance the province's new $14-billion regional transit plan, TransLink is now tasked with raising its $2.75-billion share.

Will that amount come through a vehicle levy? Further property and gas taxes?

And now, the ability to watch how the TransLink board makes those decisions and sets its priorities has been eliminated. All board debates will now be in secret, according to Dale Parker, the chair of the new, appointed board.

If any of the nine directors owns property along possible rapid transit routes, we won't know what they said behind closed doors, who lobbied for what and whether conflicts of interest may exist.

That's plain wrong.

Parker vowed TransLink will remain true to its values and continue the "tradition of public participation and dialogue."

But that will be limited to public input meetings on major plans and a chance for delegations and the public to speak to the board perhaps four times a year.

The new appointed structure was created last fall by the provincial government, which accused the old TransLink of devolving into a political circus.

Democracy is sometimes like that. But nobody would think of eliminating debates in the legislature.

The BC Liberals were first elected on promises to deliver the most open and accountable government ever. They did, for a while, keep a promise of holding open cabinet meetings — highly staged affairs — before they were quietly discontinued.

Now, the gutting of TransLink governance represents a new low.

Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon called the last board unaccountable because it consisted of mayors and councillors who were indirectly elected through their local councils.

He now expects a Mayors Council on Regional Transportation to be the elected authority for the increases in fares, property tax and gas tax that will be needed to fund expansion.

But despite the minister's claims, it is hard to see how the new structure will be anywhere near as accountable as the last — particularly when the appointed board will operate behind closed doors.

The government was wrong to decimate TransLink democracy by moving to an appointed board of directors.

The new appointees are doubly wrong to immediately ditch the transparency this region has rightly come to expect.

Jeff Nagel is Black Press' Lower Mainland regional affairs reporter,


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Friday, January 18, 2008

Politicians don blindfolds to attack ‘secrecy’ (UK)

Politicians don blindfolds to attack 'secrecy'

Islington Tribune - by ROISIN GADELRAB

Published: 18 January 2008



Labour councillors Barry Edwards (left0 and Gary Doolan

Politicians don blindfolds to attack 'secrecy'


Opposition claims: We are kept in dark as reports are marked confidential


BLINDFOLDED and holding a copy of a confidential report, Labour councillors Gary Doolan and Barry Edwards have staged a protest at what they see as increased secrecy at the Town Hall.

They are taking a stand against procedural changes which they say prevent them holding the ruling Lib Dems to account.

From the end of last year, only a limited number of councillors have been allowed to set eyes on documents marked "exempt", which carry details of the council's most important, and often most controversial, decisions.

The papers can be seen by party leaders, whips, executive members, those who chair scrutiny panels and members of any relevant panel. But other councillors must apply for permission to view "exempt" documents.

The protesting councillors claim they need to see all the papers to know which ones are relevant. To make their point, they have begun the time-consuming policy of calling in every decision relating to an "exempt" report. This means members of the relevant overview committee can examine it.

Labour chief whip Councillor Richard Watts, who is allowed to see the "exempt" documents, said: "It's absolutely crucial information to councillors in their role of holding the executive to account. If I show a report to a councillor who is not allowed to see it, it would be as bad as if I showed it to a journalist. There could be an investigation. It could go to the Standards Board.

"What has the council got to hide? We have a moral imperative to bear in mind the public interest. We will break these rules if we think there's a public interest to do so."

Cllr Doolan said: "The Liberal Democrats have said they won't let us see their secret reports. In the past, they've got decisions like the Care UK scandal and other dodgy deals through in these reports. We all know why they're trying to hide them from public scrutiny.

"I fully debate the issues on behalf of my constituents because I'm on their side. But the Liberal Democrats won't give us the rights of full information."

Labour councillor Martin Klute added: "There should be a presumption that we should see all exempt reports. Louise Round [borough solicitor] said we can't see them unless we have a reason so we have to guess what's in the reports to know if we want to see them.

"It's yet another way to keep the opposition members in the dark about what's going on in the executive. The power balance in the council is about 50-50 so there's no justification. It's like they're running their own Official Secrets Act."

He added: "Every time anything goes to the executive with a restricted report we automatically have to call it in just to find out what it is. It makes us look antagonistic."

A Town Hall spokesman said the decision to tighten up rules covering the distribution of confidential reports was taken by the council following a review in October.

"This concluded that, because exempt reports contained highly sensitive information, the numbers being routinely distributed should be reduced to avoid inadvertent breaches of confidentiality," the spokesman added. "This is in line with national legislation – and it's an approach taken by many other local authorities.

"Confidential reports are routinely provided to members of the committee due to consider them, for example, the executive. Apart from executive members, exempt executive reports are now only sent automatically to the leader of the opposition and chairs of overview and review committees.

"Other Liberal Democrat, Labour or Green members can request copies of specific reports. Since the changes were made in October, only two specific requests have been made by councillors to see them – both of which have been granted."


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Enough with Roanoke City council secrecy : The more the public knows, the better it will accept controversial projects.

Editorial: Enough with Roanoke's secrecy

City council dooms itself to failure when it refuses to learn the lesson: The more the public knows, the better it will accept controversial projects.

For four months now, Roanoke City Council has sequestered itself behind closed doors to discuss the building and management of an amphitheater along Reserve Avenue.

Council apparently has six proposals. According to an e-mail written by the city attorney, council has directed the city manager to negotiate with "one of the two best respondents."

The public doesn't know who that those "respondents" might be or why they are deemed the "best." In fact, the public doesn't know a lick about this project other than that the mayor and three council members decided -- with no public debate and contrary to consultants' recommendations -- that a 7,000-seat, $11 million amphitheater would best be built on property prone to flooding. The public only even knows about the e-mail because The Roanoke Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

Then council courted developers willing to put capital into the project and to manage it.

Not so fast on the capital part. Councilman Brian Wishneff disclosed that not one proposal received in September included a developer willing to invest. To which, Councilman Dave Trinkle now says, "The bottom line is we know that we're going to have to pay for this. ... Really what we're looking for is a design team and a management team."

Council clings to a mind-boggling pattern in which it deliberates major projects in secret, brings only decisions into the public arena, then wonders why the public won't support its wisdom.

People would be much more willing to lend support if they understood fully the choices before the city and if they were privy to the debate as to why one proposal fares better than another.

They just hate it when a decision is rammed down their throats. Many scorned council when members selected the old Victory Stadium site for an amphitheater instead of Elmwood Park or another location without so much as one moment of public debate.

Council is already working at a disadvantage in gaining support for this project. To continue in secrecy surely won't win over supporters.

By now, with enough controversial and failed projects on the city's résumé, council should know this. Sadly, not one member seems to get it. They are conducting the people's business and spending the people's money. The people want -- and need -- to know how.

If this council won't do it, voters should pick representatives who will.


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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."

--Justice Louis Brandeis, Other People's Money, and How the Bankers Use It, 1933.


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`Wall of secrecy' alleged over air safety reports

`Wall of secrecy' alleged over air safety reports

Legislation bans airlines from releasing information on incidents reported by employees

January 16, 2008

Bruce Campion-Smith

Ottawa bureau chief

OTTAWA–Transport Canada has put up a "wall of secrecy" around reports of air safety problems, a blow to accountability that will undermine public faith in Canada's airline industry, advocates warn.

A controversial change to the regulation of Canadian airlines contains a blanket ban on the release of air safety incidents reported by airline and airport employees.

The Canadian Newspaper Association and the Canadian Union of Public Employees are raising the alarm, saying air travellers will be left in the dark about safety concerns.

"They're constructing a bulletproof shield of secrecy around the reports of air safety incidents that is immune to challenge," said David Gollob, senior vice-president of public affairs and communications at the newspaper association.

But Transport Canada was quick yesterday to deny any shift to secrecy, saying that the information off-limits under the new law has not typically been available for public scrutiny.

"The information that is protected is information that would not otherwise be available," said Franz Reinhardt, Transport Canada's director of policy and regulatory services. "That's because the information is contained in internal company reports."

However, Richard Banlis, a senior researcher at CUPE, which represents 8,500 flight attendants, said that under the censorship provisions of Bill C-7, airlines will be able to "bury their problems."

"We made the argument that that's a cone of silence that is descending on the industry which suits Transport (Canada) and the airlines," Banlis said yesterday in an interview. "We think that's wrong as a matter of policy.

"At the end of the day you will know nothing about what's happening in the industry except what comes through the minister's and the airlines' news releases. That is simply unacceptable."

At the heart of the change is a move by Transport Canada to let airlines police their own operations. Under this change, airline employees will be encouraged to flag safety concerns within their own organizations.

If that information is gathered by federal inspectors, the legislation bans its public release, even under access-to-information legislation. And unlike cabinet confidences, which are made public after 25 years, the reports of safety concerns would stay secret forever.

"We will never know what is going on with safety at an airline," Banlis said.

Access-to-information legislation has been used to reveal shortcomings in airline safety. In 2006, a joint investigation by reporters from the Toronto Star, Hamilton Spectator and The Record of Waterloo Region, revealed potentially dangerous shortcomings in a number of areas, including federal oversight, safety regulations and the pressure on front-line aviation workers to maintain an on-time flight schedule, sometimes at the expense of safety.

The primary source was Transport Canada's database of more than 50,000 aviation incidents since 1993, obtained through a federal access-to-information request.

Under the new regime, some of that information will be evaluated by the airline, and even Transport Canada, to track an airline's safety performance. But to encourage employees to voice concerns, Transport Canada agreed to keep those reports secret if they came into the possession of its own inspectors.

He said making those reports public could have a chilling effect if employees know their reports could "make headlines in a newspaper. We are not trying to hide any information."

Bill C-7 has passed the Commons. But CUPE and the newspaper association are taking their concerns to the Senate, hoping to win changes before it is finally made law.

Gollob said the secrecy risks undermining confidence in the new aviation regulation that has already attracted criticism.


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