The province’s privacy commissioner has recommended the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) release the eight-year-old employment contract of its former top bureaucrat and highest-paid employee in response to a freedom of information request filed by Global News.
In November 2015, Marieke Walsh, then an employee of Global News, filed a request for the contract of the municipality’s former chief administrative officer, Richard Butts.
Butts served in that role from March 28, 2011 to January 2016.
Walsh was informed by the HRM that the details of the contract were contained in a letter of offer sent to Butts. She eventually sought the release of that document.
The municipality originally refused to release the document, however in March 2019, the HRM disclosed a redacted version.
Global News has continued to seek an unredacted version of the letter of offer.
“The initial reasons for not releasing the contract were twofold: it’s the CAO’s private information and it is the municipality’s position that releasing the information could harm our ability to negotiate future contracts with future candidates,” said Brendan Elliott, a spokesperson for the municipality.
“The municipality is taking a consistent approach in not releasing the full contract. It shows that we are trying to meet that balance between respecting the privacy of our employees and former employees while, at the same time, recognizing there is a serious need to be transparent to the public.”
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But a report dated June 6, 2019 from the province’s information commissioner, Catherine Tully, disagrees with the HRM’s assessment.
Tully concludes the municipality has incorrectly applied two exemptions to the province’s freedom of information legislation and that the municipality “provided no evidence to support its assertions” that releasing the information would cause it economic harm.
As a result, Tully says the municipality should release the letter in its entirety.
When asked about the HRM’s response to the recommendation, Elliott wrote: “We are reviewing Commissioner Tully’s decision and will decide a course of action within the 30-day window.”
The municipality can ultimately ignore the recommendation of the privacy commissioner if they so choose. Over the past three years, the province, municipalities and even public utilities have chosen to ignore recommendations from the privacy commissioner.
Public bodies are not mandated to follow Tully’s recommendations, and she has no ability to order them to do so.
Tully, who is set to step down from her post in August, has called on the province repeatedly to update the province’s freedom of information and protection of privacy legislation.
Nova Scotia has yet to do so.