Governments play privacy card far too often

Shouldn't trump public's right to know


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In politics, transparency is a great concept. But it is also a cruel mistress for politicians.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/02/2015 (2849 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In politics, transparency is a great concept. But it is also a cruel mistress for politicians.

Just ask Mayor Brian Bowman.

The mayor’s office announced Wednesday interim CAO Deepak Joshi had resigned. Bowman suspended Joshi in mid-January, after the mayor claimed he had “lost confidence” in the career public administrator.

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files Mayor Brian Bowman has called for greater transparency at city hall.

However, no further details were provided at that time. Just as no details were provided when Joshi was suspended, or about why he resigned.

The reasoning for the cone of silence is that as a “personnel matter,” all details must be kept secret. The theory is personnel matters are fraught with legal complications. Reputations and livelihoods are at stake, which effectively trump transparency.

However, this trump card is played way too often in situations in which government doesn’t want people to know what happened.

If a public servant has behaved badly and firing him or forcing him to resign was appropriate, the public has a right to know what the servant did.

Conversely, if a public servant was treated unfairly and forced from his job for no good reason, the public and the public servant deserve to have those details made public.

Either way, there are a very small number of scenarios in which it’s actually none of the public’s business. Situations where, for example, a public servant is suffering from an addiction, or is struck by a serious illness, or has a family matter that requires them to leave their jobs. In those situations, the public doesn’t necessarily need to know the messy details.

Is Joshi’s departure the result of a personal crisis that requires a modicum of discretion, even privacy? It’s possible but unlikely, given the fact the mayor has already said the decision to suspend Joshi was related to his performance as CAO.

So, we are left with two broad possible explanations about what is going on.

First, that Joshi resigned rather than having to face uncomfortable questions about his role in several simmering controversies.

The leading theory is Joshi hid some of the details surrounding the acquisition of a lot at 220 Carlton St. by CentreVenture, the city’s downtown development agency, and the subsequent option provided to True North Sports & Entertainment to use the lot as part of a $400-million development.

Bowman has never confirmed this, nor has any member of council. And yet, it was hard to ignore the fact Joshi’s suspension coincided with Bowman’s public denunciation of the True North option on 220 Carlton St., the former site of the Carlton Inn. And that as more was learned about the now-empty lot, there were details some people in the city were anxious to hide from the public.

These included a city-led plan to borrow $33 million for the completion of the RBC Convention Centre expansion and pay for it, in part, with incremental taxes from the construction of a nearby hotel. That plan has largely failed, leaving the city exposed on the convention centre loan.

But there was more. Again, at the insistence of former mayor Sam Katz and former CAO Phil Sheegl, CentreVenture was directed to purchase the Carlton Inn at what turned out to be an inflated price. CentreVenture was then directed to find someone to build a hotel there as soon as possible.

Was Joshi responsible for any of these decisions? It seems unlikely given he did not take over as interim CAO until late 2013, at which time the whole convention centre/220 Carlton house of cards was fully, completely constructed.

However, it is possible he was not forthcoming enough about the details to earn the confidence of the newly elected mayor.

The other explanation is Joshi was a victim of Bowman’s tendency to rush to judgment. This seems to be the case regarding the True North option.

Bowman claimed to have little or no information about True North’s option, alleging it was improperly acquired. Later, it was revealed Bowman and senior staff knew quite a bit about what was going on, but — for reasons still not clear — he disavowed knowledge of True North’s plans.

At this stage, and without any background on what really happened, we can keep both options on the table.

True transparency in government is an elusive concept because so much of what goes on in public administration never sees the light of day. Combine that with the messy errors of commission and omission, and you can see how even the most strident open-government champions, like Bowman, could be overwhelmed.

For now, Joshi’s resignation is a personnel matter. It would be wrong, however, for Bowman to continue using that excuse to deny the public the details of what’s really going on at city hall.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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