HUNTSVILLE – An argument about ethics erupted in Huntsville’s council chamber.
At an Oct. 11 committee meeting, Couns. Karin Terziano and Brian Thompson questioned the morality of the town charging an individual hundreds of dollars for processing a freedom of information request then divulging the information complied as part of that request to the public for free.
“From what I understand, there was a fee charged to the individual of $600 for this freedom of information request,” said Thompson. “Now we’re presenting it for nothing to the public? There is something wrong with this.”
The freedom of information request asked for the amount paid to 20 former employees as part of severance packages.
Staff did not confirm the amount of the fee charged for compiling the requested information, but did state the individual had paid at least half of the fee with the remaining half pending his or her picking up the compiled information from town hall.
Terziano recommended reimbursing the fee.
“I have no problem with council being aware of this ahead of time, but we are presenting it to the public with the press here and not in closed session,” she said. “I would propose we consider waiving the fee to the individual if we’re presenting this to other people, rather than charge the individual this fee.”
Terziano drafted a motion recommending the reimbursement of any fees already paid by the individual for the freedom of information request and release the report to that individual at no additional cost. Thompson seconded the motion.
“This is nothing but dirty pool and I would propose that council reimburse the funds paid by the applicant,” said Terziano.
But staff members explained that the Municipal Act required them to finish processing the invoice for the freedom of information request. And information released as part of such a request immediately became public information.
Kelly Pender, chief administrative officer for the town, said if council had requested the information, no fee would have been charged. But with freedom of information requests that come from individuals, staff are obligated to address those requests and as per the Municipal Act must charge $30 per hour of staff time spent compiling the information requested.
“Staff doesn’t have the discretion to do anything other than what we’ve done,” said Pender.
Staff confirmed the payroll officer alone spent about 20 hours compiling information, and that did not include the time spent on the request by other staff.
Coun. Det Schumacher supported charging the fee, at least for the time being.
“It’s been my experience over the years sitting at the municipal table that organizations come forward and ask for the waiving of fees. And council or committee at that point considers it,” said Schumacher. “We’re in a situation here where an amount was paid for our staff to process something which has a charge. I am fine with the charge.”
But he said if the individual came forward at some point to request the fee be waived, it would be a different issue and he would be prepared to consider it at that time.
And Mayor Claude Doughty argued that the individual’s request did not preclude council hearing the information.
“A request was made, the work was done. Council didn’t direct this work to be done, a member of the public did,” he said.
Now that the information is public, Doughty said the individual does not have to pick up the report and does not have to pay the remaining half of the cost.
“Everybody is happy,” he said. “What’s the problem? Nothing.”
Committee defeated Terziano’s motion to waive the fees in a recorded vote of five to three. Terziano, Thompson and Coun. John Davis voted in favour of immediate reimbursement.