Tuesday, August 18, 2009

History's most open and accessible government

Lawyer Cameron Ward applied to the independent Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for release of information. His request was short and simple:
The RAV Line (now Canada Line) project is a unique public works project involving an expenditure of a massive amount of public funds. Therefore, all records pertaining to the project should be available to the public, and I submit there are no valid business or proprietary grounds for concealing or expurgating them.
Of course, in British Columbia's public affairs, nothing can remain simple for long. This request soon had executives and lawyers scurrying for these organizations:
  • Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc. "Canada Line"
  • Greater Vancouver Transit Authority "TransLink"
  • InTransit BC Limited Partnership
  • InTransit British Columbia GP Ltd. "InTransit BC"
  • SNC-Lavalin Ltd. "SNC"
  • SNC and Serco Group plc “SNC/Serco”
Executives wanted to keep secret some documents because, they said, the Canada Line could be target of a terrorist attack or criminal activity. They did not explain how the information might be used nor illustrate that any of the withheld information is of a sensitive nature.

Canada Line also sought to block release of information about consultations with First Nations, partly because that knowledge might encourage an expectation of consultations in future situations, when less convenient. They pointed out that if disappointed, aboriginals might make other projects more difficult for the provincial government.

The Commission found that Canada Line’s arguments on harm are vague, speculative and hypothetical. It also disagreed that releasing information would harm negotiations on future projects because, by Canada Line’s own admission, it is unique in its magnitude. Future projects would therefore be influenced by their own unique requirements and the then prevailing financial climate.

The transit authorities also sought to prevent financial information from being made public, claiming that might harm the competitive aspects of their relationships. The adjudicator held that they failed to demonstrate how harm would flow from release of the information.

The OIPC adjudicator's order, signed August 11, was short and simple:
I require Canada Line to give the applicant access to all of the information it withheld.
Cameron Ward is a lawyer attracted to interesting cases, often related to civil rights and justice issues. The front-page of his website highlights words of Martin Luther King Jr:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Ward took on the case of Susan Heyes, Cambie Street merchant who operated Hazel & Co., a small retail business. Heyes argued that those responsible for the rapid transit line that impacted her business had misrepresented the nature of the manner of construction, had created a nuisance and/or were negligent. After a comprehensive pre-trial process, the issues were heard in BC Supreme Court and, following a three week trial, Ms. Heyes was awarded $600,000 for lost business income, plus interest and costs.

The defendants appealed the decision and tried to delay payment of damages pending the outcome. Ward argued that Ms. Heyes' business might be ruined permanently if she didn't receive the money. The appellants argued that since Ms. Heyes was in questionable financial shape, they might be unable to recover the funds if they were successful in overturning the judgment.

I would love to hear an ethicist analyze that proposition. The quasi public defendants cause irreparable financial harm to an innocent individual, lose the court case yet argue they should be allowed to increase the plaintiff's suffering, perhaps to a fatal extent, because the almost ruined victim is in a financially weakened condition. Why is she in that condition again?

Happily, B.C. Court of Appeal Justice Edward Chiasson rejected the defendants' arguments and the damages have been paid to Ms. Heyes.

Remember, these government and transit people speak as citizen representatives, our representatives, in this matter. It was really you and I talking to Ms. Heyes, saying she mattered not at all. Those same people who dragged their feet on the Heyes miscarriage mistreated numerous other merchants similarly.

They are also the people who refused to disclose important parts of the Concession Agreement that sets out the parties' rights and obligations regarding the transit project over 35 years. Every single argument they made to justify the secrecy was rejected by the OIPC. Why are these public officials trying to oppress public interests?

Well, we do know who sets the policy. It is the man who said:
Secrecy feeds distrust and dishonesty. Openness builds trust and integrity.
Also, in his 2001 victory speech, newly elected Premier Campbell said:
We will bring in the most open and accountable government in Canada. I know some people say we'll soon forget about that, but I promise that we won't!
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2 comments:

  1. "a terrorist attack or criminal activity" .. they must have had to dig deep for that excuse.

    Congratulations to Ward Cameron and Susan Heyes for holding these guys accountable. I wonder why more folks aren't worried about how this project was handled?

    One free ride and everyone forgets how what has happened? Sad

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just discovered this blog in the last few days. Very interesting, and well written. And it is also nice to know I'm not the only one who remembers that quote from 2001...I think we need to remind Mr. Campbell.

    ReplyDelete

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