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File an FOI to see a simple invite? That's our City Hall for ya!

It took a year after Valin's report for council members, after much squabbling and efforts to block Valin, to narrowly vote to invite him. Valin is a highly respected former judge and also a former North Bay councillor, so he has a lot to offer
20180822 north bay city hall  turl 2017
North Bay City Hall. Jeff Turl/BayToday

It's a simple document...a letter inviting former judge George Valin to address City Council...the man who, as the acting Integrity Commissioner, authored a code of conduct report.

After the report was delivered, Valin offered to speak to council, free of charge, about how it could improve its code of conduct guidelines. Surely councillors would be eager to enhance the rules of such an important would think. But you'd be wrong.

It took a year after Valin's report for council members, after much bickering, squabbling, and efforts to block Valin's appearance, to narrowly vote to invite him. Valin is a highly respected former judge and also a former North Bay councillor, so he has a lot to offer.

See: Silence of the lambs. Councillors sit on their hands to avoid embarrassing mayor over integrity commissioner's report

And: Five fight, and win, against bid to silence Integrity Commissioner

And  Valin's invite to speak to Council went out today

But it's been another nine months, and still no appearance by Valin, so we at BayToday began to wonder why.

Had circumstances changed? Was the invite rescinded? Did restrictions make it impossible for Valin to accept?

We thought we'd start by taking a look at the invitation itself. Perhaps it would contain some clues.

So we started by contacting Mayor Al McDonald, CAO David Euler, and Communications officer Gord Young.

McDonald ignored our request altogether, Euler passed our request on to City Clerk Karen McIsaac, who also failed to respond. 

It was clear city staff didn't want us to see the contents.

A series of emails with Young, and three requests to see the invitation, elicited this response.

"While many documents, such as bylaws and agendas, are released in the normal course of the City’s business, third party rights and notifications are an important consideration in relation to the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA). The City must observe notification requirements under the Act when it comes to the release of documents relating to third party information.  This process applies to anyone requesting correspondence between the City and third parties, as you have in this instance. It is the City Clerk that is designated as Head for MFIPPA within the City."

In other words, if you want to see the invite, file a Freedom of Information request.

According to the City of North Bay's website, an FOI is a "legal process designed to make sure that all requests for access are treated fairly and objectively. MFIPPA sets out that information should be made available to the public, and that certain types of records such as personal privacy of others, trade secrets, [and] lawyer-client privilege must be protected."

It's hard to see, by the City's own description, how an invitation for someone to address Council would fall under those parameters, unless it contains something you don't want the public to know.

It also seems odd that just last year councillors Mac Bain and Marcus Tignanelli asked, and got support from fellow councillors, to lobby the Ontario government to review and reform the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (MFIPPA).

At the time Tignanelli said "There are a handful of residents who continually push the boundaries for frivolous and vexatious MFIPPA actions. We're all well aware of those individuals."

In other words, councillors wanted fewer FOIs, not more.

See:Harassment of municipal staff, 'frivolous and vexatious' requests top reasons for FOI reform

City Hall staff have a very poor record when it comes to transparency. 

Two years ago a local citizen, Don Rennick, who had been asking City Hall staff pointed questions about the city's finances was blacklisted.

Rennick received an email from CAO David Euler telling him not to bother calling anymore, but to start filing Freedom of Information requests instead, causing more paperwork, and costs, for both Rennick and the City.

"In general, staff will no longer be responding to your emails," Euler, wrote to Rennick. "Please follow the FOI request procedure and we will respond accordingly as required under the regulations."

"I'm asking the tough questions, questions they don't want to answer because they don't want anybody to know," Rennick responded at the time.

See: City Hall tells citizen activist to go FOI himself

That didn't help North Bay's tarnished reputation. It was a self-inflicted wound that led to being named the most secretive municipality in Canada, after being a runner-up for the distinction the year previously.

See: An embarrassing win! North Bay most secretive municipal government in Canada says journalist's group

And: North Bay gets 'honourable mention' in Code of Silence awards for government secrecy

Mayor McDonald never made any changes to improve the situation and a source in City Hall, citing a lack of leadership, tells BayToday that senior managers treat the embarrassment as a joke,

Citizen activist Kevin Ferris, who has a history of fighting City Hall secrecy and has been forced by the City to file multiple FOIs, says he's not surprised with the City of North Bay demanding an FOI request for the simplest of documents. 

"It's been a well-established hallmark of Mayor McDonald's three-term reign. Requests like yours or basic things like attendance figures for Summer in the Park are met with nothing but obstruction."

See: City blocks efforts to get Summer in the Park numbers

And: Finally, Summer in the Park stats to be revealed this week

"It's time for the City to move beyond the transparency talking points and re-establish some good faith with the taxpayers by releasing basic information without the need to battle through the FOI process.  A process that councillor Bain and former councillor Tignanelli lobbied the provincial government to make even more restrictive and complicated," added Ferris.

So an FOI will be filed. We'll report on a regular basis how we make out.

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Jeff Turl

About the Author: Jeff Turl

Jeff is a veteran of the news biz. He's spent a lengthy career in TV, radio, print and online, covering both news and sports. He enjoys free time riding motorcycles and spoiling grandchildren.
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