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AINS Blog - FOIA and Case Management

Friday
Jan132012

Is there a line of being "too intrusive" in the arena of government transparency?

by: Michelle S.

As of January 1, hospitals and health networks in Ontario are subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), joining the Ontario colleges, universities, school boards, municipalities and local government bodies which have already been in compliance.

Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario Ann Cavoukian has stated in regards to the inclusion of health institutions under FIPPA that "Ontario is the last Canadian province to include hospitals under FOI - this has been a long time coming and represents a major step forward for openness and transparency, leading to greater accountability."

The salaries of hospital executives who earn more than $100,000 have been disclosed annually since 1996 on Ontario’s Public Sector Salary Disclosure “sunshine list.” However, prior to January 1, details of executive contracts such as benefits, vacation time, retirement packages, and other perks have not been mandatory for public disclosure. Now that hospitals are subject to FIPPA, many hospitals have been proactively posting contract details.  The Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) recommended that member hospitals release executive contracts (as well as board minutes, financial plans, and other documents) online. "When universities became subject to FOI, one of the first things people wanted to see was executive contracts," said OHA President and CEO Tom Closson."Rather than waiting for requests to come in one at a time or hospital by hospital — we have 150 hospitals in Ontario — we thought it would make the most sense to proactively disclose these contracts."

The release of executive contracts has caused some discomfort for hospitals as article after article discusses the necessity of CEO perks such as luxury car leases and cosmetic surgery.  The question of the line between intrusiveness and transparency is a familiar one. In the U.S., Maine Governor Paul LePage has raised concern about overly invasive FOIA requests.  “We have received requests for all grocery receipts from the [governor’s house]. I understand that taxpayers have a legitimate right to know the amount of money being spent in their house, but the intimate details of our diet goes far beyond funds and into the private details of my family’s life.”  LePage calls attention to the idea that sometimes the line where a public official’s taxpayer funded private lifestyle becomes rightful public knowledge can be less than cut and dry.

Chris MacDonald of the Business and Ethics Blog points out that in the Ontario hospital situation,a perk like membership in an exclusive private club might look odd from the outside, but a moment’s reflection should reveal that an executive who is responsible for massive fundraising efforts genuinely needs to be part of the kind of clubs where he or she can network with the right sorts of people. It’s possible that public judgment leading to a restriction of CEO perks could limit the ability of hospitals to attract top candidates for the job. However, MacDonald concludes, “of course, if the public has a genuine ‘right to know,’ then that cluelessness is lamentable but not decisive. The public ain’t always right, but it’s always the public.”

Ontario, under the guidance of Privacy Commissioner Cavoukian, has been pushing an agenda in favor of the public’s right to know. Perks such as gym memberships have been banned from Ontario hospital executive contracts since April 1, 2011 and there is currently a freeze on CEO salaries, according to Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews.

The executive contract releases as part of the new age of FIPPA compliance for Ontario hospitals might be intrusive for some, but they provide yet another step in offering visibility into government spending. As Health Minister Matthews stated, “From… transparency comes accountability.” Hanover and District Hospital CEO Katrina Wilson agrees about the benefits of FIPPA, saying, “I can see it being pretty much business as usual…. It's always good to be above board and transparent."

Do you think there is a line of being “too intrusive” in the world of government transparency? Let us know your thoughts!

Friday
Jan062012

“What preparations has the council made for a zombie attack?” 

by: Lorien S.

Freedom of Information advocates will always encourage citizens to submit requests for information.  As champions of transparency, it would be ludicrous to expect otherwise.  However, in some instances, they may find themselves on thin ice defending the earnestness of the requester or even the cost to process certain seemingly trivial requests.

In the United Kingdom (UK), requesters have cost the public over £31million (almost $48 million) since the Freedom of Information Act went into effect.  Some requests, however, may call into question the reasonableness administrative cost of responding with even a “no responsive records” reply. 

A few bizarre requests include:  “What preparations has the council made for a zombie attack?”  and “How much money has been paid to exorcists over the past 12 months?”   These requests can be easily dismissed due to the obvious lack of responsive records, but what of Angela Wright’s request for "eligible bachelors within Hampshire constabulary between the ages of 35 and 49 and details of their email addresses, salary, and pension values". There are likely many responsive documents and quite a bit of redaction work to do in order to respond to such a request. 

 Ms. Wright may have a reason, albeit selfish, for requesting that information, but some requests seem to be intended solely to tie up or waste resources, for example “How many drawing pins are in the building and what percentage are currently stuck in a pin board?”

Read more here.

This is not an isolated problem in the UK.  On the other side of the pond, Barbara Schwarz exceeds even seasoned journalists in her volume of FOIA requests to the US government.   Her requests center on her “belief that she is the daughter of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, born in a submarine village under the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and was kidnapped from it and taken to Germany as part of a Nazi conspiracy. She also says that she believes that L. Ron Hubbard is the son of President Dwight Eisenhower and that the Federal government is concealing the whereabouts of former Church official Mark Rathbun, whom she says is her husband, and that he was falsely imprisoned for her own murder. When shown a recent photo of Rathbun provided by the Church of Scientology, she said that it was not the same man. ” 

Read more here.

I am not questioning the virtue of government transparency or public access to information.  However, it does seem silly that the public should pay for either time-wasting prank requests or redundant requests as above.  In Barbara’s case, the public didn’t.  Two US Courts of Appeals ruled her requests and lawsuits as frivolous.  But that is not always the case and, amusing as many of these requests are, it raises the question: where is the line between protecting and abusing the right to information?  What do you think?

Friday
Dec162011

New search feature - FOIA.gov

A new search feature has been added to foia.gov that will make it easier for the public to locate documents already proactively released by agencies. The new feature can be found under the FIND tab.
Thursday
Oct272011

Welcome to the FOI Blog!

Presented by AINS, the FOI Blog is a place for news and discussion of all Freedom of Information (FOI) related topics. AINS will be featuring our own talented FOI experts, but anyone with an interest in FOI is welcome to participate.  

Interested parties please contact info@ains.com.

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