Nanaimo’s city manager has taken the unusual step of issuing a stern warning to city staff about “improper disclosure of personal information” three days after News Nanaimo published revealing details of staff expenses.
In an email to all city staff yesterday morning, Tracy Samra said “recent events” had led her to conclude that personal information about employees “may have been” given to “third parties.”
“This has resulted in public commentary, speculation, rumours and exaggeration to the detriment of those affected,” she wrote, adding that if “further breaches occur, those responsible will be held accountable.”
On Sunday, News Nanaimo published details of expenses incurred by Ms. Samra and chief financial officer Victor Mema, including the fact that the finance chief charged taxpayers for a $56 steak dinner during a $6,360 junket to Florida.
The article sparked a firestorm of concern on social media as well as letters to council. Councillor Sheryl Armstrong said in a message to supporters on Monday that she would make a motion to tighten policies around staff and council member expenses.
Early yesterday morning, prior to Ms. Samra sending her email to staff, News Nanaimo sent follow up questions to the city after a source pointed out a discrepancy in the city manager’s expenses. That request and two subsequent ones have not been answered.
Article based on properly released records
None of the information in the News Nanaimo article on Sunday involved improper disclosure of personal information by city staff. The article was based on 85 pages of expense records obtained through a properly authorized freedom of information request, and information freely available on the Internet.
Previous rulings by BC’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) have found that expense receipts must be disclosed upon request, including details of meals paid for with public funds. In this case, the city redacted more information in the receipts than is required.
Ms. Samra’s email to staff is unusual because responses to suspected breaches of personal information are the responsibility of the city’s privacy officer Sheila Gurrie, who is also the city clerk and head of freedom of information.
In certain circumstances, suspected privacy breaches must be reported to the province’s privacy authorities. A spokesperson for the OIPC said the city had notified it of a privacy breach, but gave no details.
Crackdown on information flows
Ms. Samra has become increasingly sensitive in recent weeks to public scrutiny and criticism of herself and other staff.
Last month, she stunned councillors and the public by imposing a new rule forcing residents to submit their questions at council meetings to Ms. Gurrie and herself for approval.
This requirement was slammed as “irregular and inappropriate” by Dermod Travis, executive director of non-profit political watchdog IntegrityBC.
A week later, she ordered that all staff leave the council chamber during question period because residents could potentially create a toxic work environment for herself and staff.
Meanwhile, managers at the city have been told to refer all media inquiries to Ms. Gurrie. Previously, managers were trusted to speak directly to journalists without prior approval or vetting.
The crackdown on interviews with the media came shortly after former director of community engagement and communications Philip Cooper was escorted off city premises on September 20.
Mr. Cooper emerged this week as the new communications manager for the City of Penticton. In an interview with the Penticton Herald yesterday, he described the situation in Nanaimo as “not ideal.”
“When you have a lot of disruption, you aren’t able to focus on the strategic priorities as well as you could. And you have to put a lot of attention on dealing with unconventional circumstances that are a distraction,” he told the Herald.
Yesterday’s email from the city manager is likely to have a further chilling effect on staff’s willingness to talk openly to the media and residents.
“Things are very volatile here. When you have a family to think about, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself by possibly saying the wrong thing,” said one manager, who did not want to be named because he fears reprisal.
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