Ombudsman prods city on HQ
Urges reconsideration of refusal to reveal reason for pricey project
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/12/2014 (2889 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Manitoba’s ombudsman wants the City of Winnipeg to rethink its refusal to divulge part of the rationale for pursuing the $210-million Winnipeg police headquarters project.
In a report into a complaint launched by the Free Press, the ombudsman upheld the city’s rights to refuse a request for documents revealing why city officials recommended buying and renovating the 56-year-old former Canada Post building instead of fixing the 48-year-old Public Safety Building.
The ombudsman found the city was technically within its right to invoke a discretionary exception under Manitoba’s freedom-of-information legislation known as “advice to a public body,” which is intended to ensure civil servants can speak frankly with politicians about important decisions.
But the ombudsman concluded the city “failed in its duty” to assist the Free Press in obtaining the information, didn’t respond openly and didn’t exercise its discretion to refuse the request “in a reasonable fashion.”
The ombudsman recommended the city revisit its decision to withhold access to several relevant documents and reissue a rationale for making that decision.
“The decision should include an explanation of all factors that were considered by the city to be relevant in exercising its discretion and give evidence that the city considered the particular and unique circumstances of this case,” the ombudsman’s office stated in its report.
The city has until Jan. 13 to respond. City officials were unavailable to comment Monday.
Mayor Brian Bowman, a freedom-of-information expert, said while he can’t comment on the case — he had yet to read the report — he will demand the city stop using discretionary exceptions so often as a means of denying access-to-information requests.
“I’m not aware of a government in Manitoba or even nationally that takes such a firm position on discretionary exceptions,” Bowman said. “It has to change. It just doesn’t lead to good government.”
The ombudsman’s report grew out of a February 2014 Free Press request for the information that led city officials to recommend purchasing the Canada Post building in 2009 and renovating it into a new police headquarters instead of fixing the Public Safety Building.
While the project was initially sold to council as a $136-million job, it increased in scope and cost to $210 million by the fall of 2013. Documents obtained by the Free Press that fall revealed a “guaranteed maximum price” for the construction component of the work was based on a design that was 30 per cent complete and subject to change.
The Free Press access-to-information request, issued on Feb. 3, asked for any internal or external analyses of the cost of recladding the crumbling Tyndall-stone facade of the Public Safety Building and renovating the Canada Post building conducted during the two-year period before council voted to pursue the latter option. The Free Press also requested comparisons of the two projects.
On March 3, the city denied access to the requests under the “advice to a public body” exception, which can be invoked by a government if it believes harm could result from the release of the information.
The Free Press complained about the access refusal on March 11, 2014. The ombudsman’s office spent the next nine months pursuing the complaint.
In the report issued Monday, the ombudsman found the city took a rigid view of what constituted “analyses” and initially failed to even identify documents that may constitute a response to the Free Press request.
But after a May city letter made an apparent reference to relevant documents, the ombudsman asked for them.
In June, the city provided the ombudsman with a 42-page draft report, a six-page executive summary and two Excel spreadsheets, all dating back to April 2008.
The ombudsman found the city should have located these documents before denying the Free Press request and should have identified them to the ombudsman earlier.
“Our office has concluded that the city did not make reasonable efforts to search for and identify records that responded to the complainant’s access request and did not respond to the complainant openly and accurately,” the report stated.
The ombudsman also concluded the city could invoke the “advice to government” exception, but did not provide any reasonable reason why it made that decision and predetermined its decision as a refusal.
The ombudsman said the city considered “irrelevant factors” such as the “possible future detriment” caused by other requests for information and incorrectly argued conversations between public servants and politicians should be afforded the same degree of secrecy as discussions between lawyers and their clients.
Finally, the ombudsman chastised the city for refusing to release some information that appears to have already been made public.
While the ombudsman investigated the Free Press complaint, a pair of external city audits — released in July 2014 — revealed the city made no serious effort to consider any police-HQ option other than the Canada Post building, which was purchased without an independent appraisal.
RCMP are investigating the construction project.
Do you believe Mayor Brian Bowman will be able to make the city more open and transparent? Join the conversation in the comments below.