Email and Confidentiality

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CouncillorA story in this week’s Connection titled “Private talk with CAO leads to Collingwood integrity commissioner complaint” sparked the following comment.

No, this is not about what strikes me as the unethical and secretive behaviour of the councillor in question and his defending that behaviour in the media as if the town’s Code of Conduct did not state at its outset that all members of council (emphasis added):

…are held to a high standard as leaders of the community and they are expected to become well informed on all aspects of municipal governance, administration, planning and operations. They are also expected to carry out their duties in a fair, impartial, transparent and professional manner.

Which it seems to me his behaviour was not any of those. Or that the code – which they all signed – also says (emphasis added):

…there are open and proper channels for decision making and approval of policy,

I do not believe having private discussions with senior staff over their employment and emailing one another to build consensus outside the public forum fits the “open and proper channels” requirement.

Or that the Code also says members will:

…conduct and convey Council business in an open and public manner so that the process, logic and rationale which was used to reach conclusions or decisions are available to the stakeholders.

Which clearly cannot be done if you hold your discussions via email or in back rooms. So far this council has not shown itself to adhere to the spirit of the Code, let alone its letter. But council’s hypocritical lack of ethics is something I’ll save for another post.

Nor is it about how the Integrity Commissioner told the media he washed his hands of the complaint even before he informed the complainer, even though the bylaw states:

The Integrity Commissioner and every person acting under her or his instructions shall
preserve secrecy with respect to all matters that come to his or her knowledge in the
course of any investigation…

It’s about something that appears near the bottom of the story (emphasis added):

The Connection has seen a copy of the email sent by Ecclestone to members of council explaining he met with Brown and discussed his willingness to stay until September, 2016 under the existing conditions of employment.
In the email, Ecclestone told council he felt the search for a new CAO would start in April, 2016.
The Connection filed a Freedom of Information request to receive a copy of this email, but the request was denied on the basis of privacy laws.

While I am not privy to council’s emails any longer, I question whether, based on what the Connection reported, if there is sufficient legal reason to withhold the emails from public scrutiny. Given that they were sent to other members of council, and they were not contract negotiations (which of course were held behind closed doors), what reason could there be to withhold them?

I would also argue that it is in the public interest to read these emails and that whoever showed them to the Connection was acting in the public’s best interests and did not (at least from what the story reports) violate any confidentiality.

Email to and from elected officials is subject to FOI requests and no matter whether they are labelled confidential in the subject, or have one of those threatening legal statements appended to them, may not be confidential at all.

After all, I reiterate that the Code states all members must:

…conduct and convey Council business in an open and public manner so that the process, logic and rationale which was used to reach conclusions or decisions are available to the stakeholders.

So sharing those emails actually may adhere to the requirements of the code. If there was nothing wrong in his actions, as the councillor says in his defence, then what is the harm in making them public for everyone to judge for themselves whether his was an open, ethical and accountable process?

I smell another whitewash here. I hope the Connection appeals the decision to Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner because I believe the public has every right to read those emails.

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