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Transparency a key issue in municipal governance

If you are looking for answers from the city beyond what has already been shared, you should file a freedom of information request, council heard St. Albert's chief administrative officer say on Aug. 30.
stock-St. Albert Place DR020
FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

As St. Albert's Oct. 18 municipal election approaches, newcomer candidates have pinpointed transparency and openness as the top priority for change should they be elected. 

Their statements arrive on the heels of a summer where the city began to explore ways to transition to clean forms of energy, most notably through a potential 15-megawatt solar farm. As the project progressed toward a borrowing bylaw, however, many St. Albertans expressed concern over what they saw as a lack of information and clarity surrounding the project. 

Specifically, some of the numbers from the business case, such as forecast energy prices, were not shared with the public, a decision the city said was due to the proprietary modelling they were based on. 

Figures that were disclosed in the project charter underwent last-minute updates, leading some to question how certain the revenue projections were. 

During an Aug. 30 council meeting when the bylaw to borrow up to $33.75 million over 20 years to fund the project was up for vote, Coun. Sheena Hughes spoke in favour of releasing more information to the public, specifically how many solar hours were used in the business case. 

“If people have concerns, I feel like we should just be fully open and let them see what's going on,” Hughes said. 

In response, St. Albert’s chief administrative officer Kevin Scoble said twice during the meeting that concerned residents “are welcome to file a freedom of information and protection of privacy (FOIP) request with the City of St. Albert.”

“We are releasing what we feel is appropriate, yes, under legislation," Scoble said. "If somebody has a challenge with that, they should make sure to file a FOIP request instead of making allegations."

For those unfamiliar with Alberta’s FOIP act, the statement might have been confusing. What is a freedom of information request, and what role does it play in fostering government transparency?

Jason Woywada, executive director of the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, explained that under privacy and access legislation in Alberta, public bodies such as municipalities have an obligation to provide access to information about how they operate, including government records. 

“It’s about making sure decisions public bodies make are transparent," Woywada said. "People can trust that decision because they have access to the same information."

There are, however, a list of categories of information that are excluded from the FOIP act, such as disclosure that will be harmful to business interests of a third party, individual or public safety, or personal privacy.

“The act allows a public body to say, ‘Wait a second, if we disclose this information, we could be sued by the company for releasing business practices to competitors,'” Woywada said. 

While the FOIP act is designed to protect both individual privacy and the right for citizens to seek government accountability, Woywada noted the process “isn’t ideal.”

“What we’ve seen is some public bodies are hesitant to release information in the public interest, because they’re worried about misinterpretation,” Woywada said. “There’s a risk analysis some public bodies seem to undertake to control the narrative.”

Sharon Polsky, the president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada, also outlined some issues with putting the FOIP act into practice. 

“Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for public bodies to say, ‘We are all about access and privacy, transparency, and accountability, and if you want to see proof of that, just submit an access request,’” Polsky said. “Not always, but often, this is no more than a stalling tactic.”

Polsky explained that once someone files a FOIP request in Alberta, they must receive a response within 30 days. However, during this time, the public body can ask for an extension, bumping up the wait-time even more. 

After the waiting period, the request might come back with a notice that the materials are protected under the FOIP act. If the requester believes the municipality’s decision not to release information has violated the act, they can appeal to the privacy commissioner of Alberta. 

Polsky said the privacy commissioner of a jurisdiction is often under-resourced, meaning the review can sometimes take months or even years to produce results — that’s if the appeal is successful. 

“When the subject matter does arrive, it’s either the initiative has already gone forward, or it’s a moot point because the idea has been dropped all together,” Polsky said.

Further, having a city official refer residents to FOIP can create a “greater burden” for city administration, who would have to gather information to respond to the request, Polsky said. This process would require the worker to examine each piece of information line by line to see whether a word, figure, or diagram must be withheld. 

Ultimately, Polsky said Scoble’s comments sounded like a “dismissal of resident concerns."

“It could be perfectly in their right to say it, but that doesn’t help generate public confidence,” Polsky said of the statement. 

Transparency needed in uncertain times

Government transparency is more vital now than ever, due to the age of emergency ushered in by climate change, said Sean Holman, a freedom of information specialist and professor of environmental and climate journalism at the University of Victoria. 

“Climate change is going to cause enormous amounts of uncertainty over the next 30 years,” Holman said. “That uncertainty is going to be a result of climate disasters, and how we respond to them and transition to a cleaner economy. That’s big stuff, and it makes people feel very out of control.”

Holman said a lack of control and certainty about what governments are doing can lead people to seek answers in ways that are "not helpful," such as conspiracy theories. One way for a government to mitigate this consequence, he said, is to increase openness. 

However, Holman noted he has seen governments becoming less transparent, especially on the municipal level. 

“Traditionally, local governments have been more open than their provincial and federal counterparts when it comes to information, and that’s because city staff have to provide reports to council,” Holman said. “But what we are increasingly seeing is a cabinet style of government coming to local councils.”

At the provincial level, cabinet ministers and the premier make deliberations on government decisions in secret, Holman said. 

“In that system, secrecy is assumed to be necessary for decision making,” Holman said. “We’re seeing that idea of secrecy filtering down right to the local level.”

Chaldeans Mensah, an associate professor of political science at MacEwan University, said it is important to consider the full scope of a government’s behaviour when looking into transparency matters, as sometimes political actors and city administrators could enter into a pattern of behaviour where secrecy is “seen as the model for the approach to governance.”

“It’s not nefarious,” Mensah said. “But some governments get into a mode where they feel they need to keep things from the public, maybe because matters are too sensitive … maybe they think the public isn’t capable of coming to an interpretation about the effectiveness of the approach that gets taken.”

Mensah said this can look like withholding important information that could be used to assess the effectiveness of specific policies, or a tendency to hold many sessions in camera. 

Earlier in September, an analysis of publicly available data conducted by The Gazette found a third of St. Albert's most recent council’s meeting time was spent in private.

The details of these in-camera sessions are not known, but some of the general themes outlined in meeting minutes included land matters, transit, strategic planning, and personnel and human resources.

A third of council's in-camera time was dedicated to dialogue with the city's chief administrative officer. Advice from officials is outlined by the Municipal Government Act as one of the reasons council can meet in private.

Mayor Cathy Heron said this term, council was faced with several big-ticket items where it was important to "keep our cards close to our heart."

"The annexation [with Sturgeon County] and the Kingswood land deal are great examples of when we needed to go in camera to negotiate," Heron said. "When you're buying a new house, you wouldn't want the seller to hear what you're willing to pay ... we were getting the best deal for St. Albert, and it's always about that.

"There's rhetoric out there in the community that this council was trying to hide things and being deceitful, when all we're doing is following legislation," Heron said. 

Heron argued Scoble's comment didn't "represent the true approach that the city has to public communications."

"What he was trying to say is we're following the law," Heron said. "We're not hiding anything from the public, unless it's proprietary, because at this time we ... are trying to do the best for business and St. Albert."

In an email sent to The Gazette on Tuesday, Scoble said his comments were intended to clarify that information concerning the solar-farm proposal had been reviewed to determine what was allowable to disclose under FOIP. 

"The proprietary analysis model used by our consultants was not disclosed, but the key data inputs to the model were disclosed and are still on the city website," Scoble said. 

He added that his comments were also intended to clarify that when a party requesting information and the city are in disagreement as to the release of information requested, a request for disclosure "can always be made to the provincial privacy commissioner as an appeal mechanism,"

"I was also very clear in my public comments that if the privacy commissioner ruled in favour of disclosing the information requested by the third party, the city would comply with the decision," Scoble said. 

"We provided all the publicly disclosable information and were as transparent as possible," Scoble said in the statement. 

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