City’s lousy freedom of information mark is well deserved

The response of the City of Whitehorse to the failing grade it received in the Freedom of Information Audit conducted by Newspapers Canada can't go unchallenged.

The response of the City of Whitehorse to the failing grade it received in the Freedom of Information Audit conducted by Newspapers Canada can’t go unchallenged.

As relayed by Matthew Grant, the city’s communications officer, to the CBC, the official story is that the audit requests were onerous and took city attention away from fulfilling requests made by residents. Mr. Grant also complained that the city was too small to handle the workload.

The audit methodology called for straightforward requests, and small jurisdictions were asked to produce fewer documents than bigger cities. Nine requests were made to Whitehorse. Among the 20 cities included in the audit, our city distinguished itself by denying 100 per cent of the requests – it produced 0 documents for the audit. It also took the longest time to respond to the request for information – more than 30 days. Since the criteria for the audit were speed and completeness of disclosures, the City of Whitehorse failed the audit. Completely.

Mr. Grant implied that residents receive more consideration than was shown to the audacious national organization, saying we’re well-served by the documents doled out at the city’s discretion. I don’t agree.

Let’s consider a simple, straightforward test using the most fundamental of public documents – a draft election bylaw that was drawn up in May. The timeline for approval was about a week from first to third reading, vastly expanded from the 16 hours they took to pass the reprehensible election bylaw of 2009, where a census was tacked onto voter registration. (Once the census sufficiently degraded the voter registration exercise, nothing more was heard about it. Is anyone up for asking for those results?)

The draft election bylaw proposed that voters produce photo identification or two pieces of prescribed identification, a requirement that’s being introduced in a number of jurisdictions. It represents a subtle, but fundamental, shift in our democracy in Canada, which has been grounded in the principle of inclusion, keeping barriers to electors at a respectful minimum.

Of immediate concern is that the transition has often resulted in a more chaotic experience at the polls and a lower voter turnout, as voters often aren’t aware of the new condition and get turned away. That was most recently experienced by Yukon residents in the last territorial election.

It’s worth noting that Alberta’s municipal act outlines a timeline and public notification process for making that specific change to a municipal election bylaw, and prohibits passing such legislation less than six months before an election. Part of the Alberta statute includes a requirement to inform citizens of a process for petitioning against the additional qualification to their right to vote.

Councillor Kirk Cameron asked city administration to send me a copy of the draft election bylaw, since it wasn’t posted on the website. They never did send it to me, and in the end the councillor forwarded it himself, a couple of days before third reading.

Not being subject to much in the way of constraints in the dimwitted Yukon Municipal Act, the examples of institutional disregard for the Whitehorse electorate continue to accumulate, as the city has yet to inform the public that at least one significant change to the voting process will be applied at the polls in less than a month.

Is it a surprise that the City of Whitehorse failed the Freedom of Information Audit so spectacularly? It shouldn’t be. Only last fall the city made its aversion to the simplest of transparent measures plain, when Mayor Bev Buckway and city manager Robert Fendrick displayed their disinterest in putting council votes on record.

When it comes to the public’s right to know, it just doesn’t get any more basic than electoral legislation and a recorded vote. Newspapers Canada was dealing with serial, hardened, offenders.

Marianne Darragh

Whitehorse

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