City: Access to Information
posted July 25, 2005
City: Access To Information
FIRST BATCH OF CITY’S PLAYGROUNDS SECRETS ARE SAFE WITH THEM
On Wednesday June 22, our little team of CELOS researchers went to the offices of the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner for an inquiry into a freedom of information request we submitted last year. We were trying to find out how the City of Toronto spent the $4.3 - $5.2 million (estimates vary) that was earmarked for playground repairs to City park playgrounds after so much good playground equipment was pulled out of parks, resulting from the new CSA-prescribed playground safety standards. (The CSA is the Canadian Standards Association – an association of mainly manufacturers, barely over 50% Canadian.) City Council set aside those repair funds in 2000. But a group of playground advocates, Playground Lobby for Active Youth (P.L.A.Y.), led by Maya Litman, has been monitoring parks playgrounds, and has been asking the City: how come so many park playgrounds lost equipment that was not replaced, or replaced with cheap, dumbed-down equipment?
Our park's playground lost a slide, the fireman’s pole, a tire climber, and the jiggly bridge, with more listed for removal. We asked the City to let us know where the money went to replace what they removed at our playground and at others across the city. The City responded: it would cost us $12,690 for them to find all the receipts of what was done with the playground repair money. We asked the City to waive the fee, in the public interest. The City responded that public interest is not relevant here. What’s relevant, they said at the freedom of information inquiry, is that the law says institutions don’t have to produce a record where none exists – if they didn’t make a list of where they spent the $4.3 million repair money, there’s no need to show us anything.
The inquiry was held in a fourteenth-floor boardroom at the government offices on 2 Bloor Street East. Our team was: Jane Price, Luke Cayley, Jutta Mason, and Maya Litman. The City sent two lawyers, plus Jamie Warren (playground construction supervisor), Julia Madden (assistant to Parks and Recreation General Manager Brenda Librecz), and City of Toronto Corporate Access acting manager Rob Candy.
From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. we went back and forth between the boardroom and little windowless conference rooms that lock electronically as soon as you’re in them (unsettling if you’re at all claustrophobic). We talked all together and tried to work out compromises with a mediator, but in the end, no offer was close to what we wanted. So the government adjudicator, Ms.Beverly Caddigan, was left to decide. A week later she issued her decision: the City had successfully convinced her that their staff had looked as hard as was necessary to find the playground repair receipts. They couldn’t find the records we asked for anywhere, so the information of how and where the $4.3 million was spent will not have to be revealed.
If you want to read more about this issue, go to www.dufferinpark.ca and click on "research" or "city playgrounds." There is a lot of detail there, about this appeal and about other freedom of information appeals coming up. (The City of Toronto also won’t tell us how many claims they have had to pay out for playground-related injuries, or even what their insurance premiums are – on the grounds that it would cause the city economic injury to give us that information. Both refusals are being appealed to the province.)
The appeal to find out where the $4.3 million (plus?!?) playground repair money went was sponsored by park friend Kate Robertson and her family through our "buy a City secret" program last Christmas. Our case to the province was put together by the CELOS team that went to the hearing plus two other hard-working sleuths: Belinda Cole and Eric Marsden. We lost this round, but we’re not finished with the issue (not even close). In fact, this experience has led us to get serious about incorporating our little park research group: CELOS, the CEntre for LOcal Research into Public Space. Local research done by ordinary people who get a bit mad: that has some potential. And there are some funny moments,
such as when the City sends lawyers to an inquiry, to prove that they have no book-keeping.
Read the adjudicator's ruling.
posted June 24, 2005
CELOS publishes its presentations to provincial Access To Information Adjudicator
CELOS trying to find out what happened to millions in Playground "repair" money
[Update July 25, 2005: The adjudicator has ruled: City Secrets safe with the City for now. Read more >>]
1. The Argument
The arguments were prepared by Jane Price, with help from Belinda Cole, Luke Cayley, Jutta Mason and Eric Marsden.
From the conclusion to the arguments:
The absurd sequence of events outlined above shows at bare minimum that our efforts to gather
information on playgrounds have been ongoing for years. We have trudged through this process by all means
we could muster, through tenacity and by sheer will power in the face of precious little cooperation. We are
obviously concerned, and with good reason, that the city has no real will to help us.
As a result, we are most concerned that unless there is a very clear message from the IPC [Information and Privacy Commissioner] to the CAP office [City or Toronto Corporate Access and Privacy Office]
, CAP will continue to play a shell game with us. This is entirely unfair. The city has all of the
information and (comparatively) limitless resources at its fingertips, and we have only our energy and
commitment as volunteers. We are looking for some help here today in leveling the playing field. We are
seeking clear directions from you to the city to co-operate with us in a meaningful and substantial way.
Without this sort of support from you, our efforts, and those of other citizens seeking information, can
easily be flummoxed by a powerful institution without the will to co-operate. Read more >>
posted June 20, 2005
2. Responses to Adjudicator's questions
This information is provided in response to the Adjudicator's questions to me as to
whether I provided sufficient identifying information to assist the City in its search.
It is also provided to offer the Adjudicator details of which I am aware concerning
records which have not been located, and other information I have which indicates to
me that the search carried out by the City was not reasonable. Read more >>
posted May 11, 2005
SNAKES AND LADDERS: CITY SECRETS GAME
It might be time to make up a new city politics game, a cross between Monopoly and Snakes and Ladders. If the game was introduced to the children at the park, that could become an effortless, fun way for kids to learn the secrets and foibles of municipal accounting - a useful skill for the future. There would be a City Playgrounds version, which would incorporate all the ups and downs of trying to find where the $4.8 million went that City Council specifically voted for playground repairs in 2000.
Ladder: We asked the City directly.
Snake: no answer.
Ladder: We asked through the municipal "freedom of information" office.
Snake: no answer.
Ladder: We appealed the silence to the provincial access and privacy commissioner's office.
Snake: The city wrote us a letter to say it would cost us $12,900 for their staff to find where the money was spent. Read more >>
Ladder: We appealed for a fee waiver, saying we couldn't afford the fee and besides, it was in the public interest to have a record.
Long silence, then snake: a letter back on April 28: no fee waiver, it's not in the public interest, and besides, where the records don't exist as a list of expenditures, the City doesn't have to make such a list.
Ladder: we're appealing the refusal of a fee waiver and the novel book-keeping idea to the province.
updated August 6, 2005
Snake: The provincial adjudicator agrees that the city does not have to provide records that it can't find (with reasonable effort) or doesn't have.
Ladder: CELOS launches several more requests for information, based on evidence provided by the City at the Provincial Adjudicator's hearing.
(Perhaps the City's new Access to Information Commissioner will promote a more open climate)
The only problem with the game design is that there are usually two weeks to two months between responses (our playground questions began in October 2003). We were worried that such a slow-paced game might have trouble keeping the kids' (or anyone's) attention, until we hit on the idea of incorporating a sleuth component. During the long pauses, the kids could go to various city playgrounds and gather evidence of how many playgrounds were stripped of the fun structures because of the new playground risk rules (another game) that led to all this destruction. The players could chronicle those places where little or none of the $4.8 million was spent to put something new in place of what was removed. This part of the game would have a faster pace because many playgrounds are now rather dull and there would be no temptation for the kids to linger and play. They could stay on task. The little sleuths would then return to our park, where they would be given stickers to put up on a giant wall-newspaper map of the City.
We think the game has promise, but it still needs some work. Watch for developments in game design in the June newsletter.
[Update, June 24: The hearing with the provincial adjudicator has occurred (see submission and arguments), and we are waiting for word from the provincial adjudicator in the matter.]
[Update July 25, 2005: The adjudicator has ruled: City Secrets safe with the City for now.]
posted April 27, 2005
City Parks and Rec Department has trouble accounting for large expenditures
Two of CELOS' initiatives over the past year have been to find out how much money Parks & Rec has spent on consultants, and for what; and where $4.8 M earmarked for "playground repair" went. Parks and Rec has been having difficulty coming up with the answers:
In an edited version of a letter from CELOS to the province's information and privacy mediator, about Parks and Rec consultant contracts, CELOS describes how Access to Information responses from the City about Parks and Rec consultants' fees are delayed, contradictory, incomplete, and poorly organized. Read more>>
Regarding city playgrounds, Parks and Rec asked CELOS to pay $12,900 for staff time to itemize playground repair expenses. This led to another letter to the province. Read more>>
[Update July 25, 2005: The adjudicator has ruled about the playground budget: City Secrets safe with the City for now.]
posted November 18, 2004
City secrets: Parks and Rec Consultants Fees
The city government gives funds to service groups, to carry out projects for youth, new immigrants, seniors, food banks, and so on. Each group that gets funded is on a public list, by name, amount of their grant, and what it's used for. That's public information. We think there ought to be similar list of consultants who get contracts from the city. But there isn't, and when we asked for that information we were told it's not public. So we had to go to the city's freedom of information office, and wait almost three months. What we got was very incomplete, but we put that together with two other lists and now it IS public information, as it should be.
We've requested more details, but here's what we've found out up to now: Read more >>
posted November 18, 2004
List of requests
For a list of the secrets we've been trying to pry from the city (about Playground Removal, City Consultants, and Park Budgets), see our Access to Information Requests, 2004 page.