Edmonton city councillor calls for more openness from administration

City administration “have been obstructionist” about releasing information to the public, says Coun. Mike Nickel.

‘When the provincial body is telling us to release this information there’s something wrong here’

Coun. Mike Nickel says city administrators "have been obstructionist" with releasing information to the public. (CBC)

Edmonton city administrators have "been obstructionist" about releasing information to the public, says Coun. Mike Nickel.

Citing two cases where the administration attempted to keep a lid on information only to be overruled by the province's privacy commissioner, Nickel said he would like to see more transparency in the management of city information under the Protection of Privacy Act.

"When the provincial body is telling us to release this information there's something wrong here because they wrote the act," Nickel told CBC News. "Our administration is interpreting the act one way, and on a couple of cases, they've been obstructionist."

The two cases cited by Nickel include information about the selection process for the location of the Rogers Place arena site downtown, and maps delineating which neighbourhoods have the highest flood risk. In both cases, Alberta's privacy commissioner advised the information should be released despite reluctance by city administration.

The Rogers Place report showing the benefits of various potential sites for the arena was kept under wraps for eight years. 

Earlier this month, the city was ordered to release the flood maps within 60 days, in a ruling from the privacy commissioner's office, which rejected the city's argument they should be kept confidential. 

Nickel requested a report from administration to clarify exceptions to disclosing information. A report was prepared but discussion about it was postponed until Jan. 31.

Earlier this week behind closed doors, a council committee made the controversial decision to add metal detectors outside the council chambers and to add a glass wall between the public and the meeting space inside. A report on the issue was kept private under the section of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that stipulates disclosure could be harmful to individuals or public safety.  

Nickel had a mixed response to the secrecy around that issue.

"You just don't go out and advertise you're thinking about tightening up security," he said, adding he understands the need for the metal detectors but opposes the wall. "But in general, it always seems that it's back to this problem with public engagement and stuff coming out of the administration."

City says it tries to find balance 

The administration report requested by Nickel states that, under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the city is responsible "for balancing two complementary, yet sometimes competing duties: (1) providing individuals with access to the records of the city; and (2) protecting the privacy of individuals whose information is contained in the city records." 

Coun. Ben Henderson said he isn't concerned about the number of city reports discussed behind closed doors.

I know it feels like we do it a lot, but we're pretty vigilant about only doing it when it's necessary- Coun . Ben Henderson

"I know it feels like we do it a lot, but we're pretty vigilant about only doing it when it's necessary," Henderson said.

He said during his time as a councillor, he can't think of an instance something has been kept private when it should have been public.

People imagine 'far more nefarious things' 

Henderson said the downside of keeping things under wraps is that people imagine the worst.

"People imagine far more nefarious things are going on than actually happen," Henderson said.

Coun. Scott McKeen said criticism that too much goes on behind closed doors is cliche, but he too believes council could do better.

"Are there discussions that go on in camera that could have gone on in public? I think so. I suspect so," McKeen said.

I think we struggle with this at times and we probably miss opportunities- Coun. Scott McKeen

"I think we struggle with this at times and we probably miss opportunities because we get digging into the issues and we're not thinking about whether or not we should be dealing with this in public."

McKeen, a former journalist, said since taking office he's become much more aware of why certain issues aren't debated in open forum. He recognizes releasing information can do more harm than good sometimes.

"I guess the question almost comes down to: 'Does government, like private citizens, have a right to keep some of its information private?' " McKeen said. "Arguably it serves the public interest to keep some of it private.The problem is we don't have an adjudicator in there deciding that."