Halifax Regional Municipality refuses to release contract of former top bureaucrat

The Halifax Regional Municipality has dismissed a recommendation from the province's information and privacy commissioner to release documents requested by Global News. Alexander Quon/Global News

The Halifax Regional Municipality has refused to release the contract of its former top bureaucrat and highest-paid employee, despite a recommendation from the province’s information and privacy commissioner to do so.

“The municipality recognizes the need to be transparent in the disclosure of total compensation for senior staff while still providing some balance in terms of privacy and avoiding potential harm to the municipality’s economic interests,” said Brendan Elliott, a spokesperson for the municipality, in a statement on Tuesday.

READ MORE: N.S. privacy commissioner recommends Halifax release employment contract of former top bureacrat

Global News first filed a freedom-of-information request for the contract of the municipality’s former chief administrative officer (CAO), Richard Butts, in November 2015.

Butts served in the role from March 28, 2011 to January 2016.

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The HRM told Global News the details of the contract were contained in a letter of offer sent to Butts, and Global News 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, but the municipality insists the information in the letter is Butts’ private information and that releasing it could harm the municipality’s ability to negotiate future contracts.

Elliott echoed this argument on Tuesday, saying the CAO’s compensation is disclosed in the municipality’s annual statement of compensation but does not provide a breakdown of “specific benefits in terms of what’s negotiated for individual employees.”

“This decision is driven by the fact it is personal and confidential information belonging to the employee and, further, that to publicly release that information could harm the economic interests of the municipality in negotiations with staff and future CAOs,” Elliott explained.

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But the province’s information and privacy commissioner has disagreed.

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In a report released in June, Catherine Tully found the municipality had 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 said the municipality should release the letter in its entirety.

The HRM has no obligation to follow Tully’s recommendations, and it has chosen not to do so in this case.

Tully has no ability to order a public body to follow her recommendations.

Halifax’s decision not to follow the recommendation effectively ends efforts to release the contract unless the municipality is taken to court.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia county thrashed by information commissioner for failing to follow transparency legislation

Legal challenges can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and as shown by a recent legal suit for the release of management fees regarding the ferry between Yarmouth, N.S., and Bar Harbor, Maine, such court battles can last months, if not years.

Over the past three years, the provincemunicipalities and even public utilities have chosen to ignore recommendations from the information and privacy commissioner.

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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.

There has been no indication by the provincial government that it will follow through on those requests.

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