Residents will soon learn what action the City of Nanaimo has taken since the province’s privacy commissioner called on the municipality to make changes to the way private and confidential information is handled.
Sheila Gurrie, city clerk, told the News Bulletin she will be providing an update to council on April 8 regarding the municipality’s efforts to implement recommendations made by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
Gurrie, however, declined comment on steps the city has taken until after councillors have been updated in April.
Following an investigation into leaks of the Goldner Report and Integrity Group e-mails, reported to OIPC by Gurrie, the privacy office released a report last summer detailing three separate instances where city documents containing personal information were improperly released to the public.
Written by OIPC commissioner Michael McEvoy, the report stated at the time that numerous city senior staffers and councillors “lack a basic understanding of their privacy obligations” under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
McEvoy, in his report, called on the city to immediately implement a privacy management program and carry out privacy training for all staff responsible for handling personal information.
Gurrie, who is also the city’s freedom of information head, issued a statement welcoming the report and committed to “implementing the recommendations” in the future.
While the privacy commissioner’s investigation and subsequent report focused on the improper release of private information at city hall, concerns over how FOI requests were being handled when Tracy Samra was the city’s chief administrative officer were also brought to OIPC’s attention.
According to Gurrie, there was interference with freedom of information process.
“There was certain interference that I did experience. I am not going to say by who, but those matters of interference I did report to the Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner,” Gurrie said. “I did everything I could to maintain the integrity of that whole process.”
Gurrie did not provide specific details about the type of interference that occurred or when they occurred. However, e-mail communication obtained by the News Bulletin through a freedom of information request suggests the former chief administrative officer was involved in the FOI process.
“Can we please ensure I review what you are proposing to release before they are released,” Samra tells Gurrie in a November 2017 e-mail titled FOI releases.
Under provincial legislation and existing city bylaws, the chief administrative officer is not authorized to make FOI decisions, according to Gurrie.
“It is very clear in the legislation and our bylaw, who can and cannot make decisions under the act,” Gurrie told the News Bulletin. “Right now, as it is written, no, the CAO does not have the authority to make decisions.”
According to the e-mails, Samra told Gurrie she reviewed documents posted in a city hard drive for “several” FOI requests, removed those that “do not fall within the scope” of the request and was seeking a legal opinion regarding releasing city credit card statements.
“As I am requesting legal opinions for releases within each request as well as for the MC invoice one that has not been sent to us yet, may I suggest notify the individual extensions are required,” according to a November 2017 e-mail Samra wrote.
She was never made an FOI head during her time as chief administrative officer and Gurrie said decisions on what should or shouldn’t be released falls to the FOI heads.
“The roles and duties aren’t supposed to be interfered with and the decision on what isn’t released is solely the decision of the [FOI] head of that municipality,” Gurrie said.
In another e-mail, Samra wrote to Gurrie and other staff members, including Brad McRae, the city’s chief operations officer at the time, that not enough information was redacted in the city’s response to an FOI request.
McRae, who was named as an FOI head in 2017 and later fired by the city, has accused Samra of ordering him to deny an FOI request, according to a wrongful dismal lawsuit he filed against the municipality.
Speaking to the News Bulletin, former mayor Bill McKay told the News Bulletin there were “certainly” allegations of interference in the FOI process during his tenure.
“Staff had advised me that upper management was interfering with FOIs,” he said, adding that the allegations were never proven.
McKay said when the issue was raised the RCMP and OIPC were conducting investigations into the city, but didn’t know why and cautioned against linking the investigations to the allegations of interference. He said councillors were likely made aware of the allegations but some councillors had “different information” than others.
“The CAO is in charge of the operations of the city from a staff standpoint. So, I could only stand to one side and watch as it unfolded,” McKay said.
Jake Rudolph, the city’s chief administrative officer, said staff have done and are continuing to do a good job of handling a high volume of FOI requests, but declined to answer specific questions related to FOIs.
Mayor Leonard Krog said the city has addressed the recommendations made by OIPC, but declined to provide specifics. He said that during his time as mayor he hasn’t had any concerns about how sensitive information is being handled by the municipality.
“I trust that the public and the privacy commissioner will be satisfied by the steps we’ve taken,” he said.
OIPC declined to provide a comment to the News Bulletin regarding the city’s implementation of their recommendations or about the alleged interference, but said in a statement that their office is set to meet with Nanaimo in the very near future.
Samra could not be reached for comment.
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