Affordable housing cancellations shrouded in secrecy

An access to information request shows that, up until at least the end of April, Yukon Housing Corporation was being told it didn't need Yukon government's approval...

An access to information request shows that, up until at least the end of April, Yukon Housing Corporation was being told it didn’t need Yukon government’s approval to move forward with the plans to build affordable rentals.

Within months, the Yukon government’s management board would cancel the project.

The News made an access to information request for correspondence between Yukon Housing Corporation officials, including minister responsible Brad Cathers, related to the cancellation of the projects in Whitehorse.

The ATIPP request also asked for copies of the minutes from Yukon Housing Corporation’s board meetings from January 2012 to July 2014.

While many of the pages the News received were blank, one email that didn’t get redacted completely was an exchange between housing’s vice president operations, Michael Hale, and Mark Tubman, deputy secretary to the management board.

In an email dated April 26, Hale asks Tubman for advice on “how to approach MB (management board.)”

At this point, the housing corporation was prepared to fund seven projects, including two in the communities, with the $13 million in Yukon Housing Trust money that was in the bank.

The project was to use the federal money to cover some of the construction costs on rentals if the builders agreed to keep rent at an affordable rate for 10 years.

Cathers has described management board as “cabinet wearing a financial hat and making financial decisions,”

That number of projects would eventually drop down to five. In the end the government would cancel all but the two in the communities.

“We need to move relatively quickly, so these projects can get going, but the reality is that as we inform proponents some may withdraw or we may not be able to negotiate a funding agreement (they may not like our terms.)” Hale writes in the email.

Tubman responds two days later.

“Based on what you provided here, and assuming that you fit within the $9 (million) this year, $4.5 (million) next year, I don’t see any particular reason to go to MB for approval per se.”

Tubman goes on to say that the housing corporation has budget authority and the projects fit within the corporation’s mandate.

He suggests that management board be sent an “info-item” to keep them apprised of what is going on.

About two weeks later, on May 15, Cathers would make a similar statement in the legislature, insisting that the final decision on the projects would be up to the housing corporation.

The minister has previously said he made a mistake when he told the legislature that the decision was up to the housing corporation.

Now Tubman is doing the same thing.

“The request that Michael sent me, I interpreted it from the standard operating practice that we would have, which basically is what I outlined there,” he said in an interview this week.

“Everything else being equal, or in the absence of other direction from management board, the advice I gave is consistent with what we do. There would have been no need for the corporation to come back to management board.”

However, according to Tubman, there were additional directions from management board that he didn’t find before he sent that email.

“However, what had come before, which I had failed to find in my quick research, was previous direction from management board that when the results from the RFPs came in, that they were to return to management prior to making a decision.”

Tubman said the housing corporation was told about the mistake on June 12.

A string of emails from that day between various housing official is completely redacted.

The Whitehorse projects would eventually be cancelled by the government on June 25.

Tubman says he can’t provide the News a copy of the direction he says gave the government final approval on the housing projects.

That’s protected under the territory’s access to information laws, he said.

In fact, large chunks of the information requested by the News was withheld.

The April 2014 corporation board meeting minutes – the most recent ones provided – have large blank spots where information has been taken out.

On April 28, the day Tubman sent his email and four days after the housing corporation board had its last meeting, a 40-minute meeting was held.

With the exception of listing who was present, the rest of the minutes have been redacted.

Email chains from May and June, as the projects neared cancellation, are nearly completely blacked out.

Liberal Leader Sandy Silver says his office also filled out a request to see the housing corporation’s minutes, only to receive the redacted documents.

“We really didn’t receive any information at all. We were very, very disappointed. It was extremely heavily redacted,” Silver said.

“Everything changed as of these meetings and we’re not allowed to know what happened.”

When a public body blacks out information, the officials are required to say which part of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act they are relying on, to keep the information private.

In the case of the housing corporation board minutes and the emails between government officials, much of the information is redacted thanks to section 16 of the act.

In 2012 when the Yukon Party government introduced – and eventually pushed through – amendments to the ATIPP act, then-information and privacy commissioner Tim Koepke raised concerns about the changes, including section 16.

Section 16 allows, among other things, the government to redact “consultations or deliberations involving officers or employees of a public body or a minister relating to the making of government decisions or the formulation of government policy.”

At the time, Koepke told officials he was concerned by that language.

“Our scan of Canadian access and privacy legislation indicates the wording ‘relating to the making of government decisions or the formulation of government policy’ has no precedent,” he wrote in a report.

“I am concerned with this wording because it may conflict with other provisions of the ATIPP act.”

The changes went through despite his concerns.

“It’s extremely disappointing to see the Yukon Party government hiding behind the access to information act now. That’s exactly what they’re doing,” Silver said.

“There’s a lot of information that the minister wants to keep a secret and this is how they can do it now, and the public is left to wonder why.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at

ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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