A reporter’s tale of FOI woe in search of Vancouver city hall severance money

New city policy delays, withholds release of city staff payouts to public

12th and Cambie

I’ll begin by saying I tried.

I tried to find out the names and positions of all 13 city staffers who received severance packages in 2017 and the money they received.

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I know there were 13 because the number was listed in the city’s statement of financial information document for 2017. This is the same document that reveals the first initial and surname of all city employees—except police officers--who earned more than $75,000 a year.

For example, city manager Sadhu Johnston earned $337,914 in 2017. Another few examples: Rena Kendall-Craden, the city’s director of corporate communications, collected $168,609; Barbara J. Van Fraassen, the city’s director of access to information and privacy, made $125,167.

But for those 13 people who received severances, no names or money was included in the document.

So began my enquiry to get the info.

In previous years, I would send an email to the city’s communications department and ask for the info. Within a week or so, I’d receive the names and dollar amounts.  It was a fairly simple exercise.

I’d then make efforts to contact some of the big fish on the list and find out more about why they received what they received. Most times, people didn’t want to talk, or didn’t return my call.

Anyway, I saw the whole exercise as public service journalism, letting taxpayers know where their money was going.

But this year, that fairly simple exercise no longer became simple.

A city communications staffer informed me that I’d have to pursue my request via a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request. That, of course, pissed me off.

Here, in full, is the explanation I received in an email from the city:

“These types of requests need to be handled under FOI because there is third-party personal information involved. Compliance with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requires the city to undertake third party notice, so those listed can object to release of their personal information to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, if they feel it does not fall under s.22(4)(e) of FIPPA. While the city has in the past provided the information outside of the FOI process, to ensure FIPPA compliance moving forward, these types of requests will be handled by the city’s Freedom of Information Office.”

Personal information?

I wasn’t asking for their date of birth, bank account number or where they live. Just their name, position held and dollar amount. Not a lot to ask, I thought, but I’ve said that increasingly over the years as more public information gets hidden behind FOI and PR walls.

But, being the trained seal I am, I dutifully requested the info through an FOI request. That was April 12. I received some of the info I requested July 17. What do I mean by “some?”

“Some information in the records has been withheld under Common Law Settlement Privilege,” the city email said.

A quick Google search of “common law settlement privilege” tells me it has something to do with protecting communications by parties as they try to settle a dispute. So what that meant is only nine of 13 people were OK with me and you learning how much money they received in severance.

So who are they?

I’ll start with the biggest fish because this is where my tale of FOI woe gets even more depressing. That big fish was Mukhtar Latif, the city’s former chief housing officer, who received $266,170.

What’s depressing is not what Latif received, but that I already wrote a story about his payout BECAUSE THE CITY GAVE ME THE INFORMATION IN MAY 2017 AFTER I SIMPLY ASKED FOR IT. Sorry, about the caps but I waited the better part of four months for the city to tell me what they already told me more than a year ago.

This kind of stuff unnecessarily takes years off my life.

The only others to collect more than $10,000 were  Joe Snadel, manager of building maintenance, who received $73, 769.30, Sarah Zaharia, a communications strategist in the mayor’s office, who left with $11,890.66 and Martin Pykalo, a project manager, who made $10,191.20.

The other five received severances that ranged from $921.55 for D. McCandless, a recruitment coordinator, to $6,775 for K.Kelly, a systems analyst. Project manager A. Breck received $6,323.80, S. Krieger, another project manager, got $4,028 and R. Tobiassen, occupational health and safety superintendent, made $3,260.

Hardly newsworthy.

As for the four others who don’t want us to know their names, positions or how much severance they received, I have 30 business days to request the Information and Privacy Commissioner review my file.

Once I pull the pen out of my eye, I may get in touch.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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