December 04, 2013

All incoming mail being opened by Town staff

As published in The Erin Advocate

Anyone wanting to send personal or confidential material to Town of Erin councillors should not have it delivered to the Town office, unless they are willing to have it opened by the Chief Administrative Officer.

By a vote of three to one, councillors decided last week to maintain the existing verbal procedure of opening and date-stamping virtually all mail before it is directed to the intended recipient. This will now be the written procedure.

Councillors Barb Tocher, Deb Callaghan and Jose Wintersinger supported the motion, while John Brennan opposed it. Mayor Lou Maieron was ill and could not attend the meeting.

“Once mail is in the building, it needs to be opened and directed,” said Tocher, who brought in the policy when she was mayor, noting that Town documents are subject to public scrutiny. She said since councillors are part-time and may not be in the office for extended periods, important matters in an unopened letter may go unattended.

“I think this whole question of the mail has gotten a little blown out of proportion. All of the councillors’ addresses are on the website, if someone wants to send you something personal.”

Brennan said that when someone decides to mark something Personal and Confidential, “they have an expectation, and I don’t think it’s an unreasonable expectation, that that envelope is going to opened by the person to whom it is addressed. If there’s something that comes in personal for me, the staff here can pick up the phone and call me, and I can come and get it.”

He noted that councillors have taken an oath not to do things such as removing documents that are relevant to Town business. “If you’re in this position, there should be a measure of trust,” he said.

Most letters and packages are processed in the reception area. Any addressed to a specific council member, or marked as Private and Confidential, are given unopened to Chief Administrative Officer Kathryn Ironmonger, who opens, stamps and directs them.

The same applies to mail identified as related to human resources, insurance, banking and pension matters. Only competitive bid packages, such as tenders and requests for proposal, are left sealed and delivered to the appropriate department.

The issue has generated controversy because Mayor Lou Maieron felt it was not proper for staff to open mail clearly marked as private. Council had deferred the issue at the previous meeting, pending a legal opinion.

“I have talked to other Mayors, MPP Arnott and MP Chong regarding private mail, and in their offices only they open mail marked private and confidential,” said Maieron, who provided his comments in an email to fellow councillors.

The procedure lists as a cross-reference a federal legislation document entitled, Mail Management in Government Departments and Agencies. The Mayor pointed out a section of that document that says certain types of mail should be delivered unopened, including that which is “Personally addressed to an individual; and personal mail.”

He has received a number of supporting emails, saying that the opening procedure is an invasion of privacy.

He requested that the written legal opinion be provided to councillors. The CAO said that while this is not normally done, she could provide it.

“The solicitor found no issue with the procedure and further he felt that it was particularly important that the municipality have a proper record of mail that is received, so it can be appropriately tracked and responded to as necessary,” said a report by Customer Service Representative Trish Crawford. Other municipalities were consulted during preparation of the report.

“Mail sent to the organization is assumed to be the property of the organization,” she said. “This policy would streamline our mail handling process and ensure a clear understanding of internal procedure.”