Plan for external probe into FOI process is put on hold.
Katrina ClarkeHamilton SpectatorWednesday, April 28, 2021
Hamilton city councillors put the brakes on a staff-planned external review of internal privacy policies, saying they think the work could be done in house.
The proposed review was sparked by a recent conflict between public health’s decision to keep the name of a basketball team in outbreak confidential and the city clerk’s decision to release it to The Spectator through a Freedom-of-Information (FOI) request.
Spending 45 minutes on this and related issues at a Wednesday general issues committee meeting, city councillors asked pointed questions of Hamilton’s medical officer of health, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, and the city’s general manager of finance of corporate services, Mike Zegarac.
They wanted more information on public health’s refusal to name the basketball team at the centre of a COVID outbreak in October. Councillors also questioned staff’s desire to hire an external consultant to probe why the name was released through FOI.
“We’ve got enough brains within this organization,” said Coun. Tom Jackson. “I just want the ability to vote against spending taxpayers’ money on a consultant to help us resolve the matter of when to disclose and when not to disclose.”
Other councillors raised the fact the city soon plans to fill a newly funded privacy role. Couldn’t that person do the review? Zegarac, in response, said he is conscious of city staff being busy amid the pandemic. He added this matter is “time sensitive,” but only elaborated on why it is time sensitive by saying “in light of the environment we are in, issues may arise in the near future.”
Jackson put forward a motion for city staff to put together a report on the review, including its scope and if work could be done internally. It passed unanimously.
The report is expected to be complete in early June, Zegarac said.
Coun. Judi Partridge pressed Richardson on her decision to not identify the basketball team that set off the chain of events leading to the city’s decision to conduct the review.
“I have received comments back, as many of my other colleagues have, about what was different (in this case),” Partridge said, noting public health regularly identifies businesses in outbreak, some of which are in her ward. “They (local businesses) were extremely distraught about being named.”
Richardson, who still firmly believes the name should never have been released, said the difference had to do with “what would happen depending on what information was released in terms of identifying the individuals who were involved.”
“If we were to release that piece of information it could be combined with other available information that was out there to identify the individuals and health information,” she said, noting she couldn’t share more information about the “other available information” since, when combined with the team name, she says people could be identified.
Richardson said this case was the first time in the pandemic public health made such a decision.
The Spectator has reported the outbreak involved Lincoln Prep, a Hamilton-based elite basketball academy for high school age students.
It remains unclear if anyone has indeed been identified as a result of the release of the team’s name. A city spokesperson did not answer this question when asked.
Meanwhile, the city is walking back the scope of the review.
Zegarac said it will no longer look at how the team’s name was released to The Spectator via FOI in March — city staff previously told The Spectator that would be the focus of the review. Zegarac said that is instead a job for the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. The privacy commissioner’s office requires an initial complaint before it can conduct such a review. The office confirmed to The Spectator last week that no one has complained.
In response to questions from Coun. Brad Clark about “conflicts,” such as when one department wants information released but another does not, Zegarac said the review will also look at cases where pieces of privacy legislation “intersect.”
In the basketball case, the medical officer of health, who is the custodian of personal health information under the Personal Health Information Protection Act (PHIPA), decided not to release the team’s name. But when The Spectator filed an FOI with the city clerk’s office, the body responsible for processing FOIs in accordance with the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA), it released the name.
Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, said review could be an opportunity for the city to get all its departments on the same page when it comes to privacy issues.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing — for openness, disclosure and transparency as it informs the public and supports the democratic process — has yet to be seen.
“The question is whether the purpose of the review is to level down, and make sure that every department is as uncooperative with disclosure and freedom of information as the worst,” Schafer said.
“Or whether the purpose is to level up and ensure that the default position is that you release information.”
Katrina Clarke is a Hamilton-based reporter at The Spectator. Reach her via email: email@example.com