Vancouver city manager responds to reporter’s tale of FOI woe

Sadhu Johnston refers to B.C. Supreme Court case in defending public release of severance payouts to employees

12th and Cambie

Got a lot of feedback on my last piece/rant about my frustrations with getting information from city hall on severance money paid out to employees who left or lost their jobs in 2017.

Some of it came from journalists, some of it from readers and I even received a couple of emails from city manager Sadhu Johnston; I’ll get to what he had to say in a few paragraphs.

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First, I want to remind readers who didn’t read the first piece that getting names and total dollar amounts from city hall was never a problem in previous years.

Regular readers will recall I reported how much former city manager Penny Ballem ($556,595) and former chief housing officer Mukhtar Latif ($261,170) received when they were dumped from their well-paid and important gigs.

That was a couple of years ago, which was around the same time the city’s former general manager of community services, Brenda Prosken, received $238,241.

The trio has all found other jobs.

Anyway, as I reported in my previous piece, the city did eventually send me names and severance amounts for nine of the 13 employees who received payouts in 2017. It took more than three months to get the info.

I knew 13 received severances because that was the number indicated in the city’s Statement of Financial Information for 2017. But, to reiterate, no names or dollar amounts were listed.

So why did I only receive information for nine of the 13?

I’ll let Johnston answer that.

He told me in an email Wednesday that he looked into the issue. What he found is there was a change in law in February 2017 that precipitated the city’s move to refer requests like mine to the city’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act office.

He suggested I may be familiar with the B.C. Supreme Court case between the City of Richmond and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of B.C. I wasn’t. He provided me with “the very short version" of the findings.

“The BC Supreme Court case of the City of Richmond vs. the OPIC, (Richmond (City) v. Campbell, 2017 BCSC 331), regarding the application of common law settlement privilege, was about release of information regarding legally negotiated severance payments to two former City of Richmond staff members,” he wrote. “The court ruled in February of 2017 that common law settlement privilege applied to the amount of a legally negotiated settlement and that settlement information is protected from disclosure under FIPPA.”

He finished with this:

“Based on that decision, the City must handle requests for severance information, including requests for the detailed list which is summarized in the annual SOFI report, as FOI requests because common law settlement privilege may apply in which case it must be withheld.”

I gave the court decision a quick read. The case concerned two former union employees, Dave Crozier and Mario Ferreira, who alleged they had been harassed and bullied while at work. Settlements were negotiated, with the city incurring legal costs.

The “Campbell” in the case was William Campbell, who was fired by the City of Richmond. Campbell wanted to find out how much Crozier and Ferreira received in their settlements. Campbell later settled with the city but the case went ahead, anyway.

My reading of the decision is the City of Richmond won its argument—that allowing Campbell or anyone else to have access to the settlements negotiated for Crozier and Ferreira would result in “potential harm to the city.”

That harm, I imagine, would be a malcontent employee saying, ‘Hey, Dave got this much, so what can’t I get the same amount?”

Whatever.

I don’t see how this case prevents the City of Vancouver from releasing what was always public information on what a taxpayer-funded employee received in severance. I don’t see the big deal, said me, who rarely gives an opinion in this space, but what the hell.

After all, I would assume an employee would know when they take the job how much they could expect to receive in severance when they leave. Negotiating over and above what their contract states, or what the Employment Standards Act says, should not translate to holding back information from the public.

Anyway, a couple of other things…

As previously mentioned, no police officers or their salaries, severance, etc. are listed in the Statement of Financial Information. It’s a long story but has something to do with a union or association connected to the West Vancouver police department arguing years ago that such information would compromise officers’ privacy and safety.

Even so, the Vancouver Police Department has provided the salaries of the chief and his executive, when requested. This year, I requested that information April 18 and still hadn’t received it as of writing this sentence.

Finally, some of you asked why Sarah Zaharia, who was identified in my FOI documents as one of the nine people to receive a severance in 2017, received an $11,890.66 payout.

Zaharia worked for one year and two months as one of Mayor Gregor Robertson’s handlers, then left to go work on the NDP provincial campaign. Her Linkedin profile says she’s now the executive director at government communications and public engagement for the provincial government.

So why did she receive a severance?

This was the answer a city staffer provided in an email:

“The employment relationship was ended by the city. Due to legal obligation, she was entitled to a severance payout.”

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

 

 

 

 

 

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