In a decision with broader implications for government transparency, the Manitoba ombudsman has once again ruled the Winnipeg Police Service cannot keep photo-radar records secret simply because they were collected by a private contractor.

In August 2015, Chris Sweryda of the photo-radar activist organization Wise Up Winnipeg filed a freedom-of-information request for the locations of photo-radar enforcement sites, Wise Up founder Todd Dube said.

The ombudsman's office said the police service denied the request that fall on the basis it had no custody or control of the records in question because they're in the hands of a third-party service provider.

Wise Up then complained to the ombudsman's office, which had already dealt with previous complaints about the police refusal to release photo-radar records. The ombudsman then asked the police service to reconsider its response late in 2015.

"Even though a public body (such as the city) may not have physical custody of a record, if it has retained the services of a contractor to create and house the record on its behalf, then that record is typically considered to be in the control of the public body," the ombudsman said in a report released Monday.

The police proceeded to release some records in 2016, but blacked out the names of parks, schools and some other locations in order to protect "the personal safety of operators and some officers," the report says.

Todd Dube

Todd Dube of Wise Up Winnipeg says the release of information is welcome, but he wishes the ombudsman had the power to compel government to comply with requests. (Travis Golby/CBC)

After Wise Up Winnipeg once again complained, the ombudsman determined the disclosure of these locations would not endanger police.

"We acknowledge that there have been incidents of harassing and intimidating behaviour towards photo enforcement operators which are understandably concerning," the ombudsman wrote. 

"However, it is our view that the WPS has not established a clear and direct connection between knowledge of all potential photo enforcement locations and the risk of the harms (described in the evidence provided to us) to photo enforcement operators."

The ombudsman did, however, allow the police to withhold the locations of photo radar on private property.

The police released data to Wise Up Winnipeg in May, more than 20 months after the organization's original request. 

Wise Up Winnipeg's Dube said he's pleased the City of Winnipeg is getting the message it cannot use privacy- legislation exemption to keep information collected by contractors a secret.

"I'm glad to see it going that way. It's not strong enough, though. Until the ombudsman has the power to compel [the release of data], it will still happen to some degree," Dube said in a telephone interview. "They shouldn't be able to hide behind any exemptions."