The Better Voter Series: A question of transparency at city hall

Wasylycia-Leis questions whether legal requirements followed in Veolia deal

Ayame Ulrich

Winnipeg’s 2010 civic election has put transparency at the forefront with questions raised about the details of a recently inked deal that links the city to a private company for the next 30 years.

Mayoral candidate Judy Wasylycia-Leis has alleged that mayor Sam Katz’s office blocked freedom of information requests that would reveal costs of a city contract with Veolia Canada, a sewage-treatment company.

Brad Salyn, the mayor’s director of communications, states that Wasylycia-Leis’s claims are false.

“She mistakenly thought the Chief Administration Office (CAO) was a member of the Mayor’s Office which indicated how much basic understanding is lacking with her comments,” Salyn said.

The request was refused by the CAO because, under Section 18 of the Freedom of Information & Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), sharing this information could be harmful to a third party’s business interests.

Wasylycia-Leis further alleged that the city violated Section 33 of the act by not contacting Veolia Canada to either share the costs with the City of Winnipeg at large or explain why doing so would hurt their business.

“There is no indication that the city made any effort to work with Veolia to make the details of this contract public,” said David Leibl, campaign spokesperson for Wasylycia-Leis.

Veolia officials could not confirm by press time if they were contacted by the City of Winnipeg about this request.

There is no indication that the city made any effort to work with Veolia to make the details of this contract public.

David Leibl, Wasylycia-Leis campaign spokesperson

Currently, the city itself must remain silent on the issue.

“This request is currently with the ombudsman ... so I am no longer able to comment on it,” said Janet Thomas, FIPPA co-ordinator for the CAO.

Thomas notes that she is not at liberty to say whether or not the City of Winnipeg contacted Veolia about this request.

The uncertainty about whether or not Veolia was contacted raises concerns for some about accountability at city hall.

“Transparency is important for the protection of the citizens,” said Michael Welch of the Council of Canadians, a citizens’ organization that promotes progressive policies. “Especially when it involves hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds, there has to be a way to keep our decision makers accountable.”

Without access to cost information, Welch noted, it is difficult to tell if this possible contract with Veolia will save Winnipeg costs in the upgrading of sewage treatment operations.

“The cost, ultimately, is trust,” said Welch. “We have to be able to trust our decision makers.”

As vice-president advocate with the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, Katie Haig-Anderson understands the need for access to information at any level of government.

“Lack of transparency erodes public trust,” Haig-Anderson said.

She added that sharing information is important so that the public can understand decisions made on their behalf.

Published in Volume 65, Number 4 of The Uniter (September 23, 2010)

Related Reads