Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Maybe it was just trash talk

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If the city's administration is going to deny information to a city councillor or the public, it needs to come up with better or more complete answers than the one it gave to Coun. Harvey Smith, who wants to know how much the city's garbage and recycling collector has been fined for performance problems.

Mr. Smith was denied the information on the grounds that it would affect the business interests of Emterra, the company that started picking up waste from 165,000 Winnipeg households on Oct. 1 with uneven results. The city received thousands of complaints of missed collections and lost carts, a problem that has only recently improved.

The resulting firestorm of bad publicity did far more damage to the company's reputation and business interests than would the disclosure of how much it has been fined for missed pickups and other problems.

The city didn't tell Mr. Smith how disclosing the value of fines would affect the company's interests, a concern it does not display when releasing the names of restaurants that have been penalized for health violations. It also shows no concern for the reputations of firms and individuals who violate bylaws or commit some minor sin against the common good.

Mayor Sam Katz, in fact, found it convenient to serve as the leading critic of Emterra when its performance was poor. He said last October "very significant" fines had been assessed against the company and he even threatened to cancel the firm's contract and hire a new provider.

There are some commercial interests that are legitimately confidential. Companies, for example, do not want competitors to know their trade secrets, methods of business and other proprietary matters.

It's easy to understand why companies would not want the value of fines against them made public, but it's harder to understand why the city would see it the same way. It might be because it wants to mend the relationship, but it should have thought of that earlier.

If there is a broader principle at stake in denying the information, then the city must be more forthcoming.

As it stands, the city's secrecy merely raises suspicions that the promised "significant" fines were never levied, or that they were discounted.

Mayor Katz and other councillors made a point of threatening the company in public. The least they can do now is demonstrate that they meant what they said, or explain why they changed their minds.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 2, 2013 A10

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