Don Rennick, perhaps City Council's biggest watchdog, says he's surprised North Bay wasn't number one in the "most secret municipality in Canada" award announced yesterday.
The City got an honourable mention.
Rennick has been a frequent critic of Mayor Al McDonald, his council and municipal employees.
"Everything the Mayor has done has been to dissuade people from speaking out in public," Rennick told BayToday, recalling how McDonald barred him from speaking to council.
He says that the idea that the city is following the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act "is ridiculous." He says city actions are "a perversion" and says the City is actually using the Act to block information.
He cites excuses the City has used, like it would hurt the city's competitiveness or calling it "personal information."
"What they are doing is using that act to further obstruct and delay releasing information.," he believes.
In fact, Rennick says CAO David Euler recently told him that staff wouldn't answer any more of his questions unless he went through the Municipal Freedom of Information Act.
Worse yet, the City is demanding a big money payment before they'll even consider his questions.
"The first request I made I got a reply back from the deputy clerk, who is not even supposed to be answering requests, indicating they want approximately 24 hundred dollars to reply to my requests for information. It's so totally ridiculous."
Rennick says he is surprised North Bay wasn't ranked first in the secrecy sweepstakes.
"I'm surprised. If there is one contest where the Mayor and council and city officials should place first, it would be in the Code of Silence category. There's no question about it," he laughed. "I'm surprised they only got honourable mention."
Rennick has recently been battling to get information about North Bay's controversial purchase of Espanola Hydro. He has filed numerous FOI requests trying to find out the reasons for the action. Hydro, which is owned by the City of North Bay and all councillors are board members of the holding company, have blocked his efforts.
So Rennick filed an FOI to find out how much it has cost in legal fees for Hydro to deny his requests.
Turns out it's over $64,000.
"It was a personal attack on me, trying to denigrate me to the IPC (Information and Privacy Commissioner) so I wouldn't be able to make any FOI requests. So, 64 thousand dollars in legal fees.
"Lawyers aren't usually required for a response to the Act. The exceptions are spelled out in the Act and anyone who can read knows the information isn't going to be released because of this and that, but they spent 64,000. So then I asked them how much did it cost you in legal fees to prevent me from getting that 64 thousand dollar figure."
Rennick says they just got back to him last week.
"It was five thousand dollars. They spent another $5,000 when I asked them, 'How much did it cost you to go through this.'
"And the $64,000, the IPC just dismissed the claim out of hand. They said 'North Bay Hydro is being ridiculous with not a leg to stand on. This man (Rennick) is not vexatious or frivolous and these claims are legitimate claims.'"
Rennick says the mediator even told Hydro it didn't have a leg to stand on.
"They still went ahead and had it adjudicated in the process that cost $64,000 then when I asked them 'How much did it cost you and they (Hydro) said 'we're not telling you that.' They spent another five thousand dollars and eventually had to tell me. They haven't won one case."
He says North Bay Hydro is way worse than the city when it comes to secrecy.
"There is absolutely nobody looking after it at all. They are just allowed to run their own little show over there without any interference."
BayToday had previously requested an interview with Matt Payne, the president of North Bay Hydro, but never received a reply.
Rennick laments the lack of accountability from the mayor, council and hydro.
"Nothing changes. They just shrug their shoulders and go on because they know, two days from now everybody will have forgotten about it and there's no real weapon that taxpayers can use to force these guys to do anything. It's like 'get the integrity commissioner or get the ombudsman', well you know three years from now you might get something.
"You just can't embarrass them. The first thing McDonald told all the new councillors after they were elected was 'The most important thing is you've gotta have a thick skin because you're going to get criticized.' That's your duty as a councillor, develop a thick skin and if anybody says anything brush them off and continue on."
BayToday requested an interview with Mayor McDonald yesterday morning regarding the Cone of Silence awards but was told he was "off-site."
Another request this morning received this response from Communications Officer Gord Young, "The Mayor is tied up this afternoon, but indicated he will be available at Council tonight."
The earlier response was a blanket statement to all local media.
"We do not currently have any information about the rationale, methodology, criteria or verification process for this ranking. We have reached out to the organization, but have not yet heard back."
The reply points media to the City's Accountability and Transparency Policy.