The bankers box containing the documentation pertaining to our investigation into missing emails at Vancouver City Hall is getting a little crammed these days
It's over. The fat lady is singing. After a conversation with the office of BC's Privacy Commissioner, we received a formal letter advising us they are unable to pursue the investigation of Vancouver City Manager Penny Ballem's missing emails any further. Nine months after we filed our original complaint, we're told Ballem's version of events regarding her vanishing emails will stand. The City Manager had previously told CityCaucus.com the reason our FOI requests to access her email came up empty-handed was due to the fact her Blackberry wasn't working and she had already deleted her "transitory" emails.
Okay, so we should just pack our bags and let this one go. Right? Well, not so fast. Yes, file 04-1000-20-2009-040 is now officially closed, but we have an update on another related FOI which you might find of interest.
A few months ago, we wrote about how we filed two separate FOI requests asking to access about a week's worth of Ballem's email. One FOI asked to see all of the outgoing email she sent to her two assistants for the period covering August 12-24th, 2009. Ballem advised us (via the City Clerk) there was none. Nada. She couldn’t find a single email of any significance during this period to hand over to CityCaucus.com.
Our second FOI delivered at the same time was directed at her two support staff. We asked to see if they had received any incoming email from Ballem for the same time frame as our other FOI. Presto! We were told there were so many Ballem incoming emails, that it would cost us $50 to process. We paid the fee and we have now received all the so-called “transitory” emails Ballem deleted from her outbox.
In a post earlier this week, we reported the City Clerk advised us that City staff is able to use their own judgment as to whether they think a particular email is "transitory" in nature. All transitory emails can be deleted and do not need to be kept as a permanent record. According to the City Clerk's office:
The destruction of transitory records, including emails, is a routine procedure under the City's records management system. Transitory records -- defined as "records with short term and extremely limited evidential, legal, fiscal, or informational value" -- do not need to be incorporated into the regular filing system, and may be destroyed as soon as they are no longer needed.
We therefore poured through all the "transitory" emails that Ballem deleted from her outbox which just happened to still be in the inbox of her two assistants. Hmmm. Transitory huh?
Several of the records we found were so transitory they actually had big sections blacked out due to the sensitive nature of the material. That's right, the Ballem emails that were supposed to have "extremely limited informational value", were censored using Section 13 of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act.
For example, on Monday, August 24 at 9:00 am, Ballem sent an email to her assistant Tiggy Hall. We don't know what the subject of the email was about due to the fact it was apparently so sensitive the City Clerk blacked out that section. Transitory huh? Yes, the whole two page draft memo which was attached to the email was also completely off limits to CityCaucus.com.
This revelation should be of serious concern to journalists and citizens across Metro Vancouver interested in getting information out of the new regime at Vancouver City Hall. I believe that’s why NPA councillor Suzanne Anton made an attempt to close a policy loophole regarding premature deletion, an illness which appears to be inflicting Vancouver City Hall staff these days. She put the following motion before council for consideration:
(a) It is in the public interest to support openness and transparency at
Vancouver City Hall;
(b) Documents such as letters, memos and emails are important records
that should be accessible to the media and public via the Freedom of
Information and Protection of Privacy Act;
(c) Individual municipalities set their own policies regarding record
(d) The use of private email by public sector staff conducting City business
circumvents the spirit of freedom of information regulations and the
public’s right to openness and transparency in government.
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED
1. THAT staff are requested to report back with policies for record
2. THAT, as an interim policy, all Councillors and staff are directed by
Council to retain all documents (including emails) for one year; and
3. THAT, as a further interim policy, all staff are directed to conduct
public business using public email.
At the end of the day, the Vision team were not interested in entertaining Anton’s motion to ensure more openness and transparency at City Hall. They struck and replaced her entire motion (a practice that they used to howl about in opposition) with a watered down version that means absolutely nothing. As a result, the message to City employees from their Board of Directors (a.k.a. elected officials) is feel free to delete all the sensitive and important emails you’d like cause we really don’t care that much.
Based on our missing email investigation over the last six months, it’s pretty clear that City policies regarding the retention of records need to be updated to reflect the current reality of the wired world. We will have more to post on this subject in the coming weeks including a story on the regular use of private email accounts by staff as a means to circumvent FOI legislation.
Vision’s attempts to force CityCaucus.com to access Ballem’s deleted emails through the backdoor are an affront to democracy, openness and transparency at Vancouver City Hall. Mayor Gregor Robertson may be pleased that our first complaint made the fat lady sing, but she’s sorely out of tune.
- post by Daniel