– Mark E. Smith

Previously (I, II, III), I had requested the results of a public survey on Eucan megabins.

I have since requested the results of a public survey (now closed) of street furniture. The city has an ambitious plan underway to sell off every molecule of street furniture to foreign nationals.

I filed my request on 2006.07.06. The city denied my request for the results of this public-opinion survey. I had to file a complaint with the Information & Privacy Commissioner:

The City of Toronto is engaged in a process of claimed consultation with the public concerning street furniture. The City has held several public meetings, one of which I attended, and also has had closed-door meetings with the private sector. (Who attended those meetings has, curiously, not been published.) The City has produced several documents on street furniture. (Also curiously, they are fully-graphic-designed documents, not the City’s usual Microsoft Word files, which indicates forethought and advance preparation.) City staff are working tirelessly to sell the rights to build, maintain, design, and place paid advertising on street furniture for a period of at least 20 years, with the contractor likely to be a foreign-owned company.

The public survey I requested was exactly that. It had nothing to do with the clandestine business meetings the City has been enjoying with foreign multinationals. The survey consists of information provided by the public to the city government concerning an issue of public importance. Yet, in its response of 2006.07.28…, the City denied access: “Access is denied in full records you have requested [sic] under Section 11 of the Act. Section 11 has been relied upon to withhold records that contain information, the disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to prejudice the economic interests and/or be injurious to the financial interests of the City of Toronto.” (That is the only substantive part of the letter….)

The City’s claims are nonsense. The City is not contemplating an economic agreement (doing business) with the members of the public who completed the survey. The facts of public opinion can hardly ever, if at all, be said to interfere with the economic interests of a government elected by the people or of its unelected functionaries.

There is an imaginable scenario under which an economic-harm argument might apply, though it is trumped by the public benefit of disclosure. The results of the survey may be so seriously at odds with the implied or secret policies or activities of City government and staff that, were the results released, the need for those policies or activities would be drawn into public question.

Specifically, if, as I predict based on my attendance at a public consultation, most respondents adamantly demanded no advertising on street furniture but the City is forging ahead with a plan to sell such advertising, then release of that public sentiment could expose the policies and activities as being not only unwanted by the public but actively in opposition to public desires. If so, release of the survey results would engage a crucial whistleblowing or oversight function, ensuring integrity in government spending, policies, and processes.

If the City seems hell-bent on executing a policy it knows the public doesn’t want, then the facts of what the public doesn’t want, collected from members of the public themselves on a public government Web site, need to be released.

The city, through its functionary Kerry-Ann Sween, later relented and agreed to release the data, but if and only if I shelled out $10 for a CD-ROM. Information legislation does not require physical delivery of documents; I specifically requested an E-mail attachment; and the city provided the megabin documents on CD with no questions asked. This was another method to deny access.

I filed a complaint again and was later told by the city that, since I had not demonstrated financial hardship (and there’s a concept to be discussed another day), I would still have to pay the ten bucks. But curiously, I had already called Sween’s bluff in a letter dated 2006.10.27:

As you know, your office denied my information request on spurious grounds, forcing me to appeal (at quintuple the original filing cost). Your office reversed itself on appeal, then engaged in de facto deemed refusal by insisting that I pay [an amount equivalent to twice] the original filing fee for an unnecessary CD-ROM.

You and I both know that MFIPPA provides no legal requirement that records be provided on physical media, let alone authorizing the denial of provision of records until a fee for physical media is paid. You know perfectly well that I explicitly authorized E-mail delivery, a perfectly appropriate method when we’re talking about a single Excel file. You probably don’t know that your office simply mailed out a CD-ROM unbidden in a previous unrelated request.

Nonetheless, I hereby call your bluff: Enclosed is a blank CD, an addressed mailing label, and a stamp. You are requested to place the records in electronic format on the CD-ROM and mail it back without any further nonsense about fees.

Last Friday (2006.11.09), what did I discover in my mailbox but a padded envelope containing a letter; my original CD, label, and stamp (still stapled together); and a 3½″ floppy disc with a handwritten label. While I am inclined to believe this is another terribly clever fuck-you from Sween, who could tell from even a cursory reading of my sites that I use Macs, which do not have floppy drives, more likely it is an indication that neither she nor anyone she knows at City Hall has figured out how to burn the CD-ROM they were trying to make me pay for.

If it seems like the city is doing everything it can to lock information about this process behind closed doors and to deny its public disclosure, perhaps that is because the city demonstrably is doing all that.

Nonetheless, I have the survey results now and have published them in various formats. There will be more where those came from.

Questions for discussion

  1. What is Kerry-Ann Sween’s problem?
  2. The city fired its information chief in 2003, allegedly for not being a team player. This was interpreted as firing her because she actually discharged her duty to make public documents available to the public. Is Kerry-Ann Sween a team player?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.11.11 16:48. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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