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BC Gov't Hiding 'Embarrassing' Reports, FOI Advocate Says

Opposition MLA agrees, calling the province's privacy policy 'ridiculous.'

By Andrew MacLeod 20 Jan 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

An advocacy group is asking the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, Elizabeth Denham, to review the provincial government's practice of withholding "embarrassing" reports from its website.

In December, the government made a report by lawyer Marcia McNeil on the 2012 firings of seven health ministry employees available to the public by request, but declined to post it on its website where anyone could find it easily.

The choice was similar to a June 2014 decision not to post to the Internet the report by finance ministry assistant deputy minister Rob Mingay on compensation practices at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

The report found the institution broke government policies while Amrik Virk, who Premier Christy Clark later made the minister of advanced education and has since shuffled to a different ministry, was on the institution's board.

On Tuesday, Freedom of Information and Privacy Association executive director Vince Gogolek urged the government to rethink its decision not to post the reports online.

"The B.C. government claims its duty under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to prevent personal information from being accessed from outside Canada prevents it from posting either of these reports, as they contain personal information," Gogolek wrote in a letter dated Jan. 19 to Denham.

He wrote that the government's "remarkable position" was set out in an email, details of which The Tyee published on Jan. 8, quoting assistant deputy attorney general Kurt Sandstrom.

Section 33.2 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act only permits the disclosure of personal information within Canada, Sandstrom's statement said. "If the report were posted online, it could be accessed outside of Canada," it said. "To meet our obligations under the act, we cannot make the report available on a government server. The same was true of the Mingay report."

A spokesperson for the justice ministry said Tuesday there's been no reconsideration of the government's policy since Sandstrom's statement.*

Interpretation questioned

"This is an interesting position to say the least," Gogolek wrote to Denham. "If this is the proper interpretation of the law, the posting of any personal information on a public body's website is a violation of the laws of the province."

If the government is right, even some of the investigation reports from the commissioner's own office shouldn't be posted on the Internet, he wrote, noting they "sometimes identify individuals in contexts similar to those of the Mingay or McNeil reports."

He urged Denham to review the matter as soon as possible.

Opposition MLA Adrian Dix criticized the government decision to keep the report offline.

"They're keeping embarrassing reports off their website for no good reason," Dix, the MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway, said in an interview. "The fact it's embarrassing to the government doesn't mean the premier can deny access to something the public paid for."

Dix pointed out that the government frequently posts records on its Open Information website that include similar information to what was in the Mingay and McNeil reports. A recent one, for example, listed the employees whose records were to be searched as part of the McNeil review.

They included assistant deputy health ministers Barb Walman and Lindsay Kislock, health accounting operations branch director Ted Boomer, advanced education executive director Dale Samsonoff, former assistant deputy health minister and current head of the public service agency Elaine McKnight, health director of executive operations Grace Foran, Greg Tonn and Don Rintoul.**

To follow the policy consistently, the government would have to take many records off its website, said Dix, but added that would be "ridiculous."

"You have a government at the highest levels that's making up freedom of information rules as it goes along," said Dix. "It's an intentional attempt to stop the public from seeing reports that are embarrassing to Premier Christy Clark."

*Story updated Jan. 21 at 9:30 a.m.

**Name misspelled based on government report corrected Jan. 21 at 11:45 a.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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