Exemption sought from information act

Universities want out of Freedom of Information bill

A proposed amendment to a provincial government bill may mean students could be refused access to information from University meetings where decisions and deliberations are made. Administrators, however, say new legislation won’t reduce the transparency of Queen’s existing freedom of information policies.

MPP Caroline Di Cocco is proposing an amendment to Bill 123, the Transparency in Public Matters Act, 2005. According to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario website, Bill 123, as it stood in 2004, is “an act to require that meetings of provincial and municipal boards, commissions and other public bodies be open to the public.”

While the bill itself has not yet been passed, it would ensure meeting minutes are open to the public. The amendment will exempt universities from the list of public bodies that will be required to provide the public with meeting minutes.

The Information and Privacy Commission (IPC) produced a publication in 2004 in support of Bill 123, saying it promotes transparent governance.

“The IPC’s position is that we need this bill to get started on this issue,” said Bob Spence, officer of communications at the IPC.

The IPC publication criticizes the bill for having too narrow a scope. It says, “the scope of the bill should be expanded to include other public bodies that meet as a group for deliberation and decision making.”

In spite of the IPC’s recommendation, Di Cocco has said that the bill’s current scope is too wide and too difficult to monitor. Therefore, she said, the exemption of universities will better allow the commissioner to uphold the bill’s requirements.

Diane Kelly, legal counsel and acting information and privacy officer at the University, said her understanding is that universities will be excluded in the next “go around.”

“I gather [Di Cocco] had second thoughts about including universities,” she said. “She may feel that universities have their own processes which allow for transparency.”

Kelly told the Journal that at Queen’s, students have always had access to information.

“Bill 123 has to do with open meetings [minutes], but doesn’t relate to the access of information,” she said.

Kelly explained that the University has a freedom of information policy patterned on the Freedom of Information Act. This policy was passed in 1994, though it has since been amended.

“[The policy] is online, and not just students but members of the public can access this information,” she said. “The way our campus works is if people want access to information, we’ll give it to them.

“If people have questions about it, then it comes to me and it becomes a formal request. Then I search down the records and I comply with the request.”

In an e-mail to the Journal, Principal Karen Hitchcock said she doesn’t think the legislation will affect students negatively.

“This legislation isn’t needed to require Queen’s to hold open meetings,” she said. “All meetings, with the exception of a few in-camera meetings, are open and of course students sit on most committees.”

Hitchcock said that along with the Council of Ontario Universities, Queen’s lobbied for the exemption from Bill 123.

In a letter addressed to Di Cocco in June 2005, Hitchcock wrote, “The requirements of the proposed legislation, under Bill 123, would undermine the contributions of our valuable volunteers who give freely of their talent and time to serve in the best interests of the University.”

Hitchcock added that governing the contents of meeting minutes would have serious implications for the University because universities would have to comply with the legislation of the IPC.

“I must also tell you that these detailed obligations would create enormous administrative burden and costs to the otherwise smooth operation of our University and remove decision-making from academic senates, our Board and management,” she said in the letter.

In her e-mail to the Journal, she said the exemption from Bill 123 would not change Queen’s current freedom of information procedures.

AMS President Ethan Rabidoux said he doesn’t understand why there is a double standard for universities and all other public bodies that will be required to follow this law.

“[Di Cocco] probably just needed a reason for doing it,” he said. “The universities put the pressure on the government.

“It seems to me that the reason is quite simply that that’s the way it’s been for them,” he said. “It’s comfortable, and they don’t want to give it up.”

He said that universities who say they are against the bill because they are trying to protect student information are simply using student privacy concerns as an excuse.

“[Universities] say that student information at the Registrar’s Office would be public knowledge, but that’s not accurate,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”

Rabidoux said the University of Alberta is an example of an institution that is subject to freedom of information laws, but also has privacy laws to make sure certain student information can’t be obtained.

He said exempting universities from Bill 123 will make it more difficult to obtain “confidential” items.

“It gives universities greater ability to be not transparent,” he said. “In general, it gives universities undue protection from basic standards of accountability that everyone else is subject to.”

Rabidoux said AMS Assembly hasn’t yet taken a position on this issue.

“Speaking as president, I believe the University should be subject to freedom of information laws,” he said. “It’s a matter of accountability and it doesn’t seem to be any reasonable excuse or reason for universities having the double standard. Until I see one, that is the position we will take.”

Spence explained the bill is going to go through a clause-by-clause review by a legislative committee that will have representatives from all three parties, with the governing party holding a majority. He said that even when a bill is passed, it goes through many changes over the years.

“Our view is that we want this in place because there is nothing in the legislation now covering [transparency in public matters],” Spence said. “[Di Cocco] is trying to get a bill through to cover a specific number of organizations.”

He said while the bill may not initially include universities, it may change once it has been passed to eventually cover a wider scope.

“Once it’s in place and issues have been worked out, governments can make amendments to add other [public bodies],” he said.

Spence mentioned that a bill to include universities under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protections Act (FOIPPA) has just been passed and will likely be in place at universities by June.

“Right now, the Freedom of Information Act covers high schools, elementary schools and community colleges,” he said. “We’ve been pushing to have universities and hospitals under the act.” Spence said that once universities fall under the Freedom of Information Act, anyone can make access requests. He added there are a few exemptions, including requests for personal information.

Kelly said the exclusion of universities from Bill 123 is unlikely to affect Queen’s because of the freedom of information policy that has already been in place for 10 years.

However, the inclusion of universities under the FOIPPA will mean that students will be offered protection of privacy as well as access to records, she said.

—With files from ipc.on.ca and ontla.on.ca

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