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AINS Blog - FOIA and Case Management

Monday
Jan302012

Ontario Hospitals Post-FIPPA Compliance Deadline

By: Stephanie J.

As the first month for hospitals and health networks to comply with Ontario’s Freedom of Information & Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) comes to an end, there have been many publications from various outlets regarding the release of information and how health organizations are complying. It isn’t a surprise to know that regardless of size, each hospital is facing scrutiny of their process for responding to FIPPA requests. But of the upmost importance is the need to know there is a system in place at each health organization to comply in order to satisfy the annual reporting requirement by the Information & Privacy Commissioner (IPC) of Ontario.

My name is Stephanie Juarez and I have been the Account Manager and point of contact for AINS' FIPPA-related customers ranging from small and large hospitals and health networks to colleges and universities. We have aided our newest customers in various ways, from helping them establish a sophisticated FIPPA office, to providing innovative features such as the implementation of our web portal, Public Access Link (PAL). PAL is our citizen-centered solution via which requesters can submit their request and application fee, track the status of their request, receive their responsive documents and access a public reading room which contains information that the health organization has disclosed to the general public. 

As the AINS Account Manager for Ontario, I closely monitor Ontario Health Association (OHA) and the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC) to expand our knowledge so that all updates and new legislation can be translated into ATIPXpress. AINS welcomes any questions regarding our solution for FIPPA compliance, be they general or specific to an organization's existing FIPPA office. I look forward the success of Ontario's FIPPA offices in 2012.

Stay tuned for updates on FIPPA implementation! New ATIPXpress for FIPPA customers include:

  • Guelph General Hospital
  • Kingston General Hospital
  • Perth Smith Falls District Hospital

 

Friday
Jan272012

The True Cost of FOIA

By: Lorien S.

Processing costs, administrative overhead, appeals and litigation costs are well known to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) world, with the cost of litigation often being the highest and most motivating factor.  However, in the case of Virginia’s Loudoun County Board of Equalization (BOE), the FOIA may additionally cost BOE their jobs. 

The developing situation, which now includes two separate court cases, stems from a simple photograph snapped by journalist Beverly Bradford at a meeting of the BOE, which was hearing a tax appeal for the National Conference Center in Landsdowne, VA.  Moments later, a sheriff’s deputy was summoned and asked Ms. Bradford to step out of the meeting.  Ms. Bradford thereafter filed a FOIA complaint, citing Section2.2-3707, which states “Any person may photograph, film, record or otherwise reproduce any portion of a meeting required to be open. The public body conducting the meeting may adopt rules governing the placement and use of equipment necessary for broadcasting, photographing, filming or recording a meeting to prevent interference with the proceedings, but shall not prohibit or otherwise prevent any person from photographing, filming, recording, or otherwise reproducing any portion of a meeting required to be open.”  The county’s Board of Supervisors advised the BOE to apologize and avoid costly litigation.  Instead of heeding this advice, the BOE has run up a bill of approximately $54,000 (so far) in legal fees.  Moreover, the BOE is looking to the Board of Supervisors to pay for the very legal battle they had urged BOE to avoid. 

When the Board of Supervisors refused to pay, the BOE launched a legal battle against them as well, suing them to compel payment.  The Board of Supervisors, in the meantime, reached out to the State government, proposing a bill that would allow the county to select its BOE members.  This would ostensibly mean that the Board of Supervisors  could replace those persons now suing both the Supervisors and Ms. Bradford. 

Many would argue that the cost of FOIA is high enough already.  Ms. Bradford has asked the court to order the BOE to uphold the FOIA in the future, attend FOIA training, contribute $2,000 to the Virginia Literacy Fund and pay her costs. Combined with the $54,000 the BOE has already spent, it is safe to say that the Loudoun County Board of Equalization members may have learned the hard way that not upholding FOIA can come with a price tag … and maybe cost them their jobs.

For more details and to see the photograph in questions, read the article on the Washington Post. 

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.