Freedom of information and accountability experts are calling on government to include CentreVenture under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).
“I think the provincial government should review the freedom of information act and include CentreVenture,” said Colin Craig, prairie director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. He adds similar bodies should be covered too.
The City of Winnipeg says CentreVenture, Assiniboine Park Conservancy, The Convention Centre Corporation, Economic Development Winnipeg and Winnipeg Arts Council are all separate corporations are not subject to FIPPA by virtue of being part of the city.
But a closer look at Winnipeg’s financials reveals all five of these civic corporations’ balance sheets are consolidated into the city’s financial statements because they have been deemed “to comprise a part of the aggregate city operations based upon control exercised by the city.”
CBC News asked the organizations their thoughts on being required to disclose information under freedom of information law.
“If government would feel that freedom of information should be applicable to the convention centre, who am I to question the law,” said Convention Centre Corporation CEO Klaus Lahr. “It’s the law of the land.”
“If the Winnipeg Arts Council Inc. was to be included, we would follow the law accordingly,” wrote Carol Phillips, executive director of the Winnipeg Arts Council, in an email to CBC News.
CentreVenture, Economic Development Winnipeg and The Assiniboine Park Conservancy have all said more time is needed to check with their advisors before they can state their position.
“Freedom of information is one of the ways that we have as citizens of finding out about how public monies are being spent, about what kind of actions government agencies are taking. Sometimes they're not always being fully transparent,” said Kevin Walby, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg.
Typical freedom of information requests include everything from technical reports to briefing notes. Expense claims are a common request made by journalists and government watchdogs.
Even though CentreVenture is not subject to freedom of information laws, CBC News requested CentreVenture staff and board members' expenses and hospitality claims for the last three years.
That request was denied, as was a request for CentreVenture’s policy on approving expenses. This comes a week after the agency refused to provide CBC News with its conflict of interest policy.
CentreVenture CEO Angela Mathieson did say she has not personally billed for any expenses or hospitality claims in her first few weeks on the job but that was all she was able to disclose.
“I will not be able to respond to your further questions, until I have completed my review. I am also not prepared to put a timeline on that right now, as I want to ensure our organization and my board have the appropriate time to do a complete and proper review.” said Mathieson in a written statement.
Craig says CentreVenture should release all the expense information immediately. “Expense accounts are usually the type of thing where it’s cut and dry and the information should be released to the public.”
Time to update legislation?
The emergence of arms length, public-private hybrids like Winnipeg’s civic corporations was not foreseen by the architects of freedom of information legislation.
“ FOI legislation needs to be updated,” said Walby. “[to] hopefully capture some of the information that's flowing between public and private bodies.”
“It could be adjusted to protect the kind of business interests, proprietary interests, and personal information that goes into business transactions,” Walby added.
Walby argues freedom of information legislation affects all citizens.
“The decisions that they're making have a huge impact for daily life in Winnipeg and in the downtown especially,” explained Walby.
“There's a huge public stake in terms of public monies that have been put into this venture, I think those coupled together are gonna meet the threshold for requiring them to be subject to FOI [freedom of information].”