Calgary fights to keep $76K investigation into councillor misconduct a secret

The City of Calgary is fighting to ensure an independent investigator's report on misconduct by city councillors remains a secret. The city paid a lawyer $76,000 to investigate whistleblower complaints against council members.

Investigation was sparked by whistleblower complaints against an unknown number of city councillors

The two binders in the above photo are the City of Calgary's submission to Alberta's Information and Privacy Commission outlining why it should not have to release details from the secret report. (CBC)

The City of Calgary is fighting to keep a $76,000 investigative report into complaints of misconduct by city councillors a secret.

The investigation was triggered after it received several complaints to the city's whistleblower line. 

Concerns about inappropriate behaviour in the councillors' offices first surfaced in 2014. 

At the time, Mayor Naheed Nenshi described them as "comments of a sexual nature or bullying" that were part of a "systemic problem" within "the general environment in the office of the councillors."

CBC uncovered parts of the investigation through a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) request, but city officials have fought to keep all of an investigator's 32-page report secret for more than two years.

Secrecy creates concerns

A political scientist says that decision casts a shadow over every city councillor running in next month's municipal election, whether they were involved or not.

"Now there are questions around something that's been done that involves some members of council and it's not known who they are. It might actually make it more difficult for any of the councillors to be re-elected," said Lori Williams at Mount Royal University. 

CBC News uncovered that the city auditor hired Calgary lawyer Bill Armstrong to conduct the investigation.

He is a senior partner at the Calgary office of Norton Rose Fulbright, specializing in harassment policies, hiring/terminations and employment-related litigation.

He submitted his report to the city in November 2014, outlining the results of his investigation and recommendations to head off future problems in the offices of the councillors.

Even councillors haven't seen report

City council was briefed on both the investigation and the report. But councillors say they were neither shown the report nor were they told who or what was being investigated.

The city says the investigation was not about any criminal activity.

Documents obtained through the FOIP process reveal the matters relate to "workplace policies and practices." 

Some allegations were substantiated, while documents indicated other complaints were "neither proven nor disproven."

The city refuses to release any information in the report, citing solicitor-client privilege, concerns about personal privacy and the assurances of confidentiality given to the whistleblowers.

Under the city's whistleblower policy, complainants are guaranteed anonymity as well as protection against any reprisals.

The city remains concerned about possible legal action stemming from the 2014 investigation.

According to documents obtained through the FOIP process, city officials were worried as recently as June 2017 that a lawsuit was still "reasonably anticipated."

CBC News appealed the city's refusal to release any of the report.

City didn't share report with OIPC

The city even declined to provide parts of the report to the province's independent Information and Privacy Commissioner's office to review.

That office is charged with ensuring government bodies use legal exemptions properly when withholding information.

The city cited solicitor-client privilege for not providing access to the document to the watchdog.

A senior manager with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) determined nine pages of the report could be released either in full or in part to the CBC as there is no legal reason for them to be withheld.

The city disagreed with the ruling. The OIPC has no power to compel the city to release the documents.

CBC asked for and was granted an inquiry by the OIPC to determine once and for all if any of the documents should be released. Legal arguments in the inquiry are now complete and a decision from the OIPC is expected later this year.

'The most disturbing thing'

Williams says this lack of transparency can create suspicion.

"We've got some kind of problem. We've got a lot of money spent to try to deal with that problem. We don't know anything about what the problem was, whether it's been addressed effectively," Williams said.

"Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this is that when a (FOIP) request was made and denied and then a request was made for the privacy commissioner to review it, that request was thwarted."

City officials have declined to comment on the report. 

Coun. Richard Pootmans, who was the chair of the city's audit committee when the report was submitted, also declined to comment on the confidential report. 

Councillor says things are improving

Coun. Druh Farrell has raised concerns in the past about the atmosphere in the offices where the councillors work.

She said the changes made by the city since 2014 have changed some behaviours in the workplace.

"There was inappropriate behaviour from members of council toward some staff and that, I believe that has been corrected."

The city will not reveal the recommendations in Armstrong's report but city council has approved a number of changes since 2014.

Booze banned, other steps taken

Alcohol has been banned from council members' offices. 

Staffers in councillors' offices — who work for their councillor, not the City of Calgary — have been given access to services in the city's human resources department if they have questions or concerns about their workplace.

City council was given a seminar on a respectful workplace. 

As well, city council has appointed an integrity commissioner who conducts investigations of any complaints filed against the mayor and councillors — and reports publicly on any substantiated problems.

Three years later, Farrell says there has been some progress.

"I think it's more respectful. There may be some problems but certainly not to the extent that there were before," said Farrell. "Cultural change, that takes some time."

One person apologized

CBC News's investigation uncovered that at least one councillor acknowledged that his or her actions were inappropriate and apologized to the city.

As well, that person said there should be no problem with their identity being released in response to CBC's FOIP request.

But the city refuses to do that. 

In documents, it states releasing that person's name could identify other parties in the investigation — even though legal counsel for the person in question stated that "there are certain references in the records that relate specifically and only to the actions of" his client.


Scott Dippel

Politics Reporter

Scott Dippel has worked for CBC News in a number of roles in several provinces. He's been a legislative reporter, a news reader, an assignment editor and a national reporter. When not at Calgary's city hall, it's still all politics, all the time.