And this is not the first time that city staff have made it difficult to obtain expense information, including arbitrarily redacting information for no apparent reason.
On Tuesday morning, News Nanaimo contacted the city’s Chief Financial Officer Victor Mema to ask for details of his and Chief Administrative Officer Tracy Samra’s expense claims for the first half of 2016.
We made the request after Mayor Bill McKay remarked at Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting that he would like council to consider requiring senior city staff to publicly report their expenses to the same level of detail and frequency as council is now doing.
Nanaimo council has been lauded for its new quarterly expense report, which provides details on all council member expenses, from $4 coffee receipts to thousands of dollars in legal expenses.
In comments to NanaimoNewsNow last week, Councillor Bill Bestwick credited the “new administration” and Mr. Mema for the new level of transparency in council’s expense report.
However, when we contacted Mr. Mema for his and Ms. Samra’s expenses he was not as open and forthcoming.
Expense info meant to be ‘routine’
Despite a city document claiming staff expenses records are “routine” information that don’t require a formal freedom of information (FOI) request, Mr. Mema’s response was to refer the request to Sheila Gurrie, the city’s FOI head.
When News Nanaimo pointed out to Ms. Gurrie that the city’s website says an FOI request isn’t needed for staff expense claims, she said the list was “a guide, and does not mean the records are readily available without the relevant department having to produce them.”
Ms. Gurrie then committed to “look into the availability of the records you have requested and see if they can be produced and how long that may take.”
On Wednesday morning, we followed up with Ms. Gurrie via email to ask for an update on the expenses information and other outstanding items. She did not respond.
On Thursday morning, we sent another email asking if the information was available and when we might get it. She again did not respond.
2015 council expenses heavily redacted
This is not the first time that News Nanaimo has had difficulty obtaining expense information from the city.
On June 20, we asked the legislative services department for council members’ expense details for 2015. We noted that the city website listed this as routinely available information.
On July 11, the city sent a letter saying they were treating the request for council’s 2015 expense details as a freedom of information request. That meant the city could take up to 30 business days or more to provide the information.
On July 28, more than a month after we originally asked for it, the city said the information was ready but advised that parts had been blanked out under three separate sections of the provincial freedom of information law, including personal privacy, lawyer-client privilege and harm to intergovernmental relations or negotiations.
When we reviewed the document we found that many details were redacted, to the point that much of it was useless, as you can see in the the screenshot below.
When we asked to have the expense information without redaction, Ms. Gurrie denied the request and pointed us to the provincial Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) to ask them to review the city’s decision.
On August 1, News Nanaimo filed a “request for review” with the OIPC. This is a long and frustrating process that can take more than a year in many cases before a decision is given.
After learning that council’s first quarterly expenses report was going to be published soon, we shared the redacted expense information we had received from the city with Mayor McKay, Councillor Bestwick and Councillor Gord Fuller on August 10. We asked them what they thought was a suitable level of disclosure.
None of them responded, but on August 15 the city published the new council expenses report, which is essentially the same type of document as the 2015 information we were given but without redaction.
In light of the new report, we again asked the city for an unredacted version of council’s 2015 expenses. This time Ms. Gurrie agreed.
The unredacted report shows that the city arbitrarily redacted a large amount of information for no apparent reason, including names of restaurants, conference names, place names, and even dates.
The redacted and unredacted documents are posted below in PDF: