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Public right to know at centre of North Cowichan council debate

Ted Swabey’s ‘democracy’ comment hints at culture of secrecy at municipal hall

Transparency, fairness and the public right to know were up for debate Wednesday at North Cowichan council.

At issue: should the names of citizens whose letters to council form part of the official “consent agenda” be revealed or remain anonymous?

Currently, North Cowichan redacts, or deletes, the names of those letter writers, arguing it is protecting personal information according to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

sixmountains.ca asked council for an amendment to the current policy on the grounds it is unnecessarily restrictive when compared with numerous other municipalities and regional districts surveyed from Nanaimo to Victoria — all of which reveal the letter writers’ names.

The City of Victoria’s response is typical of those surveyed: “Letter writers names are not redacted from correspondence to Mayor and Council or for correspondence that forms part of a council agenda record.”

In response Wednesday, North Cowichan Councillor Christopher Justice moved that the consent agenda policy be amended so that “names are no longer automatically redacted from letters.”

Councillor Tek Manhas seconded the motion. “I totally agree with this.” He said he’d also generally like to see addresses of letter writers revealed (similar to public hearings) because that would allow council the perspective of knowing if the person is from North Cowichan.

Senior staff had their own ideas on the policy.

Chief Administrative Officer Ted Swabey recommended that any amendment “allow an opportunity for people who write in who are uncomfortable for safety reasons not to include their personal information.”

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He then referred, without specifics, to past breaches in which “doctors, undercover people, all sorts of scenarios that we were informed that they would have preferred that that information wasn’t provided.

“…I would still recommend you have a policy that if they don’t want to provide it, that you allow that.”

Does that mean anyone could ask to have their name redacted? In which case, nothing has changed.

One must also ask: why do doctors require special treatment? And why would undercover police officers be writing letters to be put on council’s agenda?

Furthermore, who is protecting the rights of those individuals who may be the subject of false, misleading or even defamatory comments by letter writers hiding behind council’s policy of anonymity?

Swabey added that revealing names of letter writers could spread to social-media debate and “that really does impact democracy and peoples’ willingness to come forward and state who they are and what their position is.”

That is an incredible statement, and represents a troubling interpretation of democracy and the need for open government. One is reminded of the Washington Post slogan: Democracy Dies in Darkness.

When Swabey said, “there’s no doubt that we are more conservative than other municipalities,” he actually hinted at a culture of secrecy that pervades municipal hall.

(The municipality refuses to answer the most basic questions about the parallel consultation with First Nations on the forest reserve, including how many meetings have been held, who represents North Cowichan, and a timeframe for conclusion.)

Staff continued to warn against a policy change on redacting names.

Michelle Martineau, manager of legislative services, said: “We have a statutory requirement to protect personal information. Anything that can identify who that person is, under the law, we have to redact it unless we have explicit authority from the person….”

Now is where things really get interesting.

Mayor Rob Douglas asked if Alyssa Meiner, information management officer, wanted to weigh in on the issue.

Turns out she’d already contacted the municipal lawyer, who advised that council is, in fact, within its rights to publish letter writers’ names on the consent agenda.

Just as other municipalities do, in other words.

“I have already looked at this, discussed it with legal counsel,” Meiner said. “It would be possible to justify the disclosure of an individual’s name as an author of correspondence that’s going to council.”

It simply requires amending the consent agenda policy by adding the words “with the exception of author name, all personal information shall be redacted from correspondence received from members of the public prior to inclusion on the consent agenda.…”

Swabey then apologized to Meiner, whom he described as the municipality’s FIPPA expert.

“I totally forgot that she was available. She could have explained that much better.”

Staff will report back on a revised policy for council’s consideration.

The issue dates back to the Dec. 21, 2022, council meeting and an individual’s written request that the deadline for the on-line public survey on the Municipal Forest Reserve be extended from Dec. 31 to Jan. 31.

Council approved the extension: https://bit.ly/3XLoqhV .

Have you completed the on-line survey? It only takes a few minutes. Read more here: https://bit.ly/3I1Rc9v .

(Ted Swabey photo courtesy of Cowichan Valley Citizen)

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— Larry Pynn, Jan. 22, 2023

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