Watson pulls plug on policy to block emails to journalists

Ottawa's mayor has scrapped a city of Ottawa policy quietly introduced this week that blocked most city employees from emailing journalists who cover city hall.

Ottawa's mayor has scrapped a city of Ottawa policy quietly introduced this week that blocked most city employees from emailing journalists who cover city hall.

In the last week, only city staff on a select list were able to send emails to the media without having those emails bounce back.

Journalists complained it was the latest in a series of communication clampdowns at City Hall, making them unable to relate information to the public.

Ottawa mayor Jim Watson said Thursday he ordered staff to end the policy, calling it "a very bad idea."

"I just directed the city manager to stop that, because we shouldn't be blocking emails. We have a process in place where there are people responsible for being spokespersons and that's great but I don't think it makes any sense to block emails for anyone whether you are a journalist or a member of the public, so I said that's the end of that."

Watson said the decision to block the email communications came out of an internal communications policy that aimed to make sure the people who spoke for the city on certain issues were the correct people.

"I don't have a problem with [having] some hierarchy in place. If you want a question on parking policy you don't just stop the parking control officer," said Watson.

Privacy commissioner responds

Here is Dr. Ann Cavoukian's written response to our story:

"While not having had an opportunity to speak with the City about the policy and why it was introduced, I share your concerns that this policy could hinder access to information held by the City of Ottawa. Government transparency and access to information are vital ingredients for a free and functioning democratic society.

"In my view, policies that restrict the public’s ability to access government-held information should be limited. I encourage all government institutions to provide greater public access and transparency relating to their activities on a proactive and flexible basis, outside of the formal access to information process. For more information, please see our framework of Access by Design which encourages a proactive approach to releasing information and making government documents truly accessible.

"I understand that the City of Ottawa has recently agreed to revoke this policy.  I commend the City for re-opening the lines of access to city-related information."

But he said blocking the emails is a mistake, one he told them to change.

Emails from information officers also blocked

Catherine Bergeron, the city manager of elections and municipal freedom of information and protection of privacy, said employees in her department need to email reporters for clarification on access to information requests. She said one of her employees noticed their emails were bouncing back.

Bergeron said she considered the inclusion of her group in the list as an error.

Capital Ward councillor David Chernushenko said he has been a proponent of openness in government and was attracted to the direction of the municipal government in that regard.

He said he was troubled to hear such an "extremely controlling" policy was put in place, but said he was pleased to hear the mayor put an end to it.