November 13, 2013

Lawsuit info research would tie up town staff

As published in The Erin Advocate

A request to dig up archived information related to a lawsuit launched against the Town of Erin by Mayor Lou Maieron will take so much staff time that a researcher will be hired for the project, council decided last week.

Clerk Dina Lundy received three Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from the same person on October 29. The mayor would not confirm directly that he made the requests, but he did declare a conflict of interest and left the council chamber during the discussion.

The first request, regarding a disputed woodlot, seeks all related letters, emails, notes and phone records, dating back to 1997, between the Town (and its consultants or lawyers), and a series of organizations that includes other defendants in the mayor’s lawsuit.

“These requests are going to take probably months to compile,” said Lundy. “The staff time that is going to be required will interfere with our operations. We are going to have to enlist some help...I imagine it would be hundreds of hours. ”

The Town does not normally charge for responding to FOI requests, since the staff time required is minimal. In this case, council agreed with the clerk’s request to hire a researcher, and to charge as much of the cost as permitted by law back to the requestor.

“Once an estimate of fees has been completed form each request, the requestor will be required to pay a deposit equal to 50 percent of the estimate before any further steps are taken to respond to each request. The remainder of the fees will be payable before access is given to any of the records,” said Lundy in her report.

“It is not known if the fees charged to the requestor will fully compensate for the cost of the researcher and other related costs.”

Lundy has consulted with the CAO, a Senior Policy Advisor from the Ministry of Government Services and the municipal Solicitor.

“It is important that the petitioner understands that the fees that will be charged are for the examination and processing of these record, not for what the final product will be, said councillor John Brennan. “Technically it is possible that the person could pay hundreds or perhaps even thousands of dollars, and at the end of the process get nothing.”

The Town is obliged to respond to FOI requests, but may hold back confidential information, and may have to consult other parties named in the documents. Lundy said the fee is payable regardless of her decision on whether or not to grant access to individual records.

The cost of legal advice on what to redact (edit out or withhold) will not be charged to the requestor, and CAO Kathryn Ironmonger said there will be “significant cost to the municipality that may not be recoverable.”

The request about the land dispute targets communications with “the OMB, Gulia et al, Erin Brook Subdivision, Charleston Homes, John & Cheryl Leenders, Birdseye Farm, and any respective principle thereof and any government agency, the CVC, MOE, MNR, DFO, or other etc.”

The mayor’s lawsuit was also on the agenda for a closed session, for which the mayor declared a conflict of interest and did not attend. Councillor John Brennan reported to the public afterwards.

“We reviewed a Statement of Defense with our legal counsel regarding court file 687/13, that is the lawsuit with the plaintiff Lou Maieron, and a number of defendants including the Town,” said Brennan. “We have directed the lawyer to file it with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.”

No information about the Statement of Defense was immediately available, but it becomes a public document once it is filed with the court.

The second FOI request is for all records of communication between Town staff and Integrity Commissioner John Craig, who is expected to report soon on a Code of Ethics complaint against Mayor Maieron. Most of that communication is expected to remain confidential. The nature of the complaint itself has never been made public.

The third FOI request if for “a full accounting of all expenses for all Town of Erin Councillors and the Mayor from start of this Council term”. The information will be relatively quick to retrieve, but it will take extra time to sort since it is “to include all receipts, credit card invoices, cash payments etc. with a breakdown of conference costs, meals, accommodation costs, travel and other associated costs.”

The Municipal Freedom of lnformation and Protection of Privacy Act allows the Town to charge 20 cents per page for photocopies, $10 for each CD, $7.50 for each 15 minutes spent by anyone to search records or prepare records for disclosure, $15 for each 15 minutes for computer programming, plus any other costs of the search for which the Town is invoiced.