FOI application moves to next stage

Out on a Limb with Alistair Taylor

Well, things have started to move again in my freedom of information request to gain access to a report into a possible conflict of interest involving former city CAO Andy Laidlaw.

I was just informed this week that an investigator has been assigned to my request for a review of the city’s response to my FOI application for a copy of the report. The office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has 90 days to respond to my request for a review but I was informed in January that the review period was due to expire on Jan. 28 and so the office has extended the review period until June 8. Then this week, I received notice about the assignment of an investigator to conduct the mediation of my application.

“The intention of the mediation process is to facilitate a settlement of the issues in this case and to ensure that the applicant has received access to all the information and records he is entitled to under FIPPA (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act),” says investigator Tina Doehnel in a letter to myself and to Tracy Bate, the City of Campbell River’s Freedom of Information Coordinator.

If a settlement is not possible, an inquiry may be held by the Information and Privacy Commissioner or her delegate. In the event of an inquiry, the commissioner will make a decision on the issues in dispute and issue an order.

You’ll recall that in August last year, the city sent me a 60-page document with every word on it blanked out in response to my request for a copy of the report into a possible conflict of interest involving Laidlaw. Every word.

I had issued a FOI request last August to see the report produced by lawyer Richard Grounds for the City of Campbell River in the fall of 2014, three months before Laidlaw and the city announced the retirement of the top employee at city hall.

As I wrote last August, the investigation centred around Laidlaw’s business relationship with a consulting firm, Jerry Berry Consultants Inc., which provided services to the City of Campbell River. The investigation was to look at whether Laidlaw was paid for services he provided to Jerry Berry in circumstances where he had a role in awarding city contracts to Jerry Berry Consultants Inc. Former Mayor Walter Jakeway said the investigation report was delivered to him and his council for a brief look at a meeting after the November 2014 civic election but because the newly-elected mayor and council was taking office shortly afterwards, the report was taken back from the “lame duck” council to be given to the new one.

No action taken as a result of Grounds’ report has been made public. However, in January, 2015, the city announced Laidlaw was retiring from his nearly four-year job as Campbell River Chief Administrative Officer. He went on his way with the full endorsement of the present mayor and council.

“Andy did a great job here,” Mayor Andy Adams told the Mirror in July. “We were extremely fortunate to have someone of Andy’s calibre.”

City Clerk Peter Wipper is the official at city hall who handles FOI and privacy requests for access to records. Wipper complied with the Mirror’s request by sending a copy of the report with virtually all of it blanked out. Not even the Table of Contents is visible. The reason given was because it dealt with personal information relating to employment history and would be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy.

When contacted by the Mirror in July, Laidlaw acknowledged that there was an investigation by Grounds but “any error on my part was minor and inadvertent and certainly did not cause any harm to the city.” And that’s kind of the ironic thing about this is that it’s probably not that big a deal but I guess the city has decided to stand on the principle that personnel issues are dealt with “in-camera” (in secret). We’re talking about taxpayers dollars here and the principle of what the taxpayers are entitled to know about how their money is being spent, especially in a situation in which there’s a potential conflict of interest by a civic employee.

Then there’s the fact that the city told no one about the investigation nor the result of it. It only came to light after a Victoria magazine investigated Laidlaw’s role in a controversy in the District of Saanich involving spyware being installed on the computer used by that municipality’s mayor.

So, I, as a journalist, and this newspaper have to stand on principle as well and request the documents and its conclusion on how city business was conducted on behalf of its citizens.

Stay tuned.