Why is this button getting pushed so often when we file Freedom of Information requests in the City of Vancouver?
Just before Christmas, a little package was delivered through the CityCaucus.com mail slot. No, it wasn’t a present from Santa, it was a four page letter from the City Clerk’s office providing further clarification as to why emails from City Manager Penny Ballem were off limits to our blog.
If you recall, we placed an FOI with the City of Vancouver to obtain emails from Ballem during her first few weeks on the job. That would take us back to a time when she was preparing the City’s budget, managing the snowmageddon crisis as well as undertaking intensive meetings with Hoggan and Associates regarding the financing of the Olympic Village. By all accounts, Ballem’s first few weeks were quite hairy.
That’s why we found it a bit curious when we asked to see copies of Ms. Ballem’s emails for her first few weeks on the job we were told there were no records to be found. Nada.
Despite all the craziness surrounding her first few days as the City’s top employee, the letter we just received asks us to believe that Mayor Gregor Robertson’s hand-picked City Manager didn’t send a single email about an issue of significance to the people of Vancouver.
We were previously told that in early 2009 Ms. Ballem had sent some emails, however, she had been using her personal email account and therefore this information was off limits to us. That’s when CityCaucus.com filed an official complaint with BC’s Privacy Commissioner in order that he could use his statutory powers to undertake a formal investigation. While that investigation is ongoing, our pre-Christmas letter from the City states:
Administrative staff in the City Manager’s Office checked Dr. Ballem’s email account and informed me that for the period in question, there were no emails in the "Sent Items" folder and no outgoing emails from her account had been printed out and filed in City files. They informed me that when Dr. Ballem started working for the City in mid-December, there were technical problems that prevented her City-issued Blackberry from synchronizing properly with her City email account. Therefore, she used her personal Blackberry, which is synchronized with her personal email account.
According to the Privacy Commissioner’s office, every single email of significance sent from a personal account that pertains to City business must be retained. Even if we give the City Manager the benefit of the doubt regarding her "technical" problems, what explains the fact that she did not retain a single work related email from her personal account during her first few weeks on the job? Why did she choose to delete them all?
According to the City Manager, despite all the issues swirling around her at the time, she indicates she never used her personal email to send a message of significance. In legal terms, the City refers to these as "transitory" emails. For example, if Ballem sends an email to a friend and asks them if they are free for lunch later in the week, this type of "transitory" email is not required to be retained.
Here is another excerpt from the letter we received:
On March 30, I responded that we were unable to find any records responsive to your request. You then filed a request for review with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. You claimed that the City’s search for records was inadequate because we had not requested Dr. Ballem to provide you with any relevant emails on her personal email account.
In the interest of concluding this review, I have requested Dr. Ballem to search her personal email account for work-related emails for the time period in question. She confirmed that she deleted all of these emails in December 2008 and January 2009 because they were transitory records. She has not retained printouts or electronic copies of any of these emails.
Wasn’t it Vision that ran on a campaign platform of openness and transparency of city government? Now they’re asking the public to believe the City Manager reviewed her emails in December 2008 and January 2009 and determined none of them were important enough to make available to us? If she wasn’t sending important work related emails in her first two months, just what was she doing?
In case you were wondering how the City actually defines transitory emails, the letter states:
The destruction of transitory records, including emails, is a routine procedure under the City’s records management system. Transitory records — defined as "records with short term and extremely limited evidential, legal, fiscal, or informational value" — do not need to be incorporated into the regular filing system, and may be destroyed as soon as they are no longer needed.
Therefore, according to the City, Ms. Ballem did not send a single email during the period in question that had any "informational value". As a result, the City has now asked the Privacy Commissioner to dismiss our investigation and close the file. We would obviously beg to differ with the City Manager on this one and are confident the Commissioner will keep this case open a little while longer.
In Part II of our disappearing email investigation, we will be providing our readers with an update regarding a separate FOI we filed a few months ago. We guarantee you’ll find what we discovered of interest. Stay tuned.