The Ontario Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Individual Privacy Act: an analysis of its application to school boards
Verworn, Brenda Stokes.
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In Canada freedom of information must be viewed in the context of governing -- how do you deal with an abundance of information while balancing a diversity of competing interests? How can you ensure people are informed enough to participate in crucial decision-making, yet willing enough to let some administrative matters be dealt with in camera without their involvement in every detail. In an age when taxpayers' coalition groups are on the rise, and the government is encouraging the establishment of Parent Council groups for schools, the issues and challenges presented by access to information and protection of privacy legislation are real ones. The province of Ontario's decision to extend freedom of information legislation to local governments does not ensure, or equate to, full public disclosure of all facts or necessarily guarantee complete public comprehension of an issue. The mere fact that local governments, like school boards, decide to collect, assemble or record some information and not to collect other information implies that a prior decision was made by "someone" on what was important to record or keep. That in itself means that not all the facts are going to be disclosed, regardless of the presence of legislation. The resulting lack of information can lead to public mistrust and lack of confidence in those who govern. This is completely contrary to the spirit of the legislation which was to provide interested members of the community with facts so that values like political accountability and trust could be ensured and meaningful criticism and input obtained on matters affecting the whole community. This thesis first reviews the historical reasons for adopting freedom of information legislation, reasons which are rooted in our parliamentary system of government. However, the same reasoning for enacting such legislation cannot be applied carte blanche to the municipal level of government in Ontario, or - ii - more specifially to the programs, policies or operations of a school board. The purpose of this thesis is to examine whether the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, 1989 (MFIPPA) was a neccessary step to ensure greater openness from school boards. Based on a review of the Orders made by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario, it also assesses how successfully freedom of information legislation has been implemented at the municipal level of government. The Orders provide an opportunity to review what problems school boards have encountered, and what guidance the Commissioner has offered. Reference is made to a value framework as an administrative tool in critically analyzing the suitability of MFIPPA to school boards. The conclusion is drawn that MFIPPA appears to have inhibited rather than facilitated openness in local government. This may be attributed to several factors inclusive of the general uncertainty, confusion and discretion in interpreting various provisions and exemptions in the Act. Some of the uncertainty is due to the fact that an insufficient number of school board staff are familiar with the Act. The complexity of the Act and its legalistic procedures have over-formalized the processes of exchanging information. In addition there appears to be a concern among municipal officials that granting any access to information may be violating personal privacy rights of others. These concerns translate into indecision and extreme caution in responding to inquiries. The result is delay in responding to information requests and lack of uniformity in the responses given. However, the mandatory review of the legislation does afford an opportunity to address some of these problems and to make this complex Act more suitable for application to school boards. In order for the Act to function more efficiently and effectively legislative changes must be made to MFIPPA. It is important that the recommendations for improving the Act be adopted before the government extends this legislation to any other public entities.