Any investigative journalist searching for truth becomes used to stonewalling tactics aimed at hiding the facts. Individuals or companies who have potential negative reputational or financial consequences by sharing information will often decide that discretion is the better part of valour. Such self-interest is perhaps understandable so far as the private sector is concerned, but highly questionable when public authorities play the same game, especially when it prevents disclosure of their use, and possible abuse, of public funds.
The Current’s attempts to “lift the lid” on what happens at 85 Bay Street have been met with stonewalling from this Township and its Council from the beginning of our existence. As we reported at the time, even before we published a single report on municipal government activities, we were ordered by the Township’s solicitors to refrain from contacting Township staff so as to protect them from “harassment.” Information subsequently received from a whistle blower was that the instigator of that “injunction” was Councillor Ernie Peplinski, this happening shortly after he agreed to terms of settlement, which included an apology, of the editor’s HRTO claim. (The same whistle blower also subsequently told The Current what had, in any event become obvious: that we are the victims of a “vendetta.”)
Since that time, The Current has published more than 375 articles covering local municipal business. Of them, the overwhelming majority have been purely factual reports on Council meetings and related matters of public interest. A very small fraction of them were articles that fall into the category of investigative reports (all of which were clearly identified as being “opinions”); yet these have apparently been sufficient to justify an information blockade as well as public attacks on the characters of The Current’s owners.
Even more disturbing, CAO Suzanne Klatt – whose job requires her to prioritize the financial interests of ratepayers over attempting to preserve the personal reputations of members of Council – has connived with the elected body in its obvious attempts to interfere with the freedom of this particular member of the fourth estate. It has now reached the point where Klatt simply ignores our requests for information on controversial matters of public interest.
Klatt bears a heavy responsibility for the obscene amount of money for legal fees that has been paid to the municipal corporation’s lawyers Wishart Law, who were retained on her recommendation, in the unsuccessful attempt to get the court to throw out the lawsuit which we reported on recently. Despite Council being accused of abuse of power for maliciously targeting a community newspaper which operates on a not-for-profit basis, the only witness who gave evidence was Klatt, thereby protecting members of Council from being cross-examined. In her Affidavit evidence, Klatt’s excuse for not accepting the offer made before proceedings were commenced, which included a donation to charity, was that the requested donation would be a “penance” …
When Justice Doyle ordered Klatt to release relevant records she had refused to disclose and also to re-attend for further cross-examination, she instructed Wishart Law to appeal. That did not end too well as a Divisional Court judge who conducted a case management conference berated Tim Harmar of Wisharts for wasting the time of three Divisional Court judges and his clients’ money. The appeal was then quickly abandoned. If Klatt has not yet seriously considered her position, it is perhaps time that she did so.
One of the first things that the present Council did on the advice of the same law firm after taking office was to amend its Code of Conduct and Integrity Commissioner Protocol. This resulted in members better insulating themselves from complaints against them by residents, resulting in potential complainants being disadvantaged compared to most other municipalities in Ontario. At the same time they eliminated the standing Public Question Period at Council meetings. There have also since been published reports of improper compliance by the Township with its obligations under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Personal Privacy Act (MFIPPA) resulting in costly and unsuccessful defences of investigations by the Province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC). The most recent one of these resulted from advice given by Wishart Law to Klatt, who is also the Township’s Information Officer, which caused the IPC to issue a report that questioned the use of “an outside law firm/lawyer” and recommended that the Township “reconsider the frivolous or vexatious claim.”
Against this history of orchestrated secrecy and profligacy, we are now approaching the last year of the current Council term, so it is time to start thinking about the 2022 municipal election. Readers may recall that during the last election campaign, we provided an online “Town Hall Forum” which enabled residents to use The Current as a conduit to seek direct answers to their questions from municipal candidates. The Current’s only role was to provide the online link between the questioners and the candidates, but otherwise it remained neutral; nonetheless, the forum was boycotted by Love, Peplinski and former Councillor Shelley Maika. Starting this fall, The Current intends to provide a similar forum with the aim of opening up lines of communication between MV residents and their elected body. It will enable readers to submit questions on any subject to members of Council, each of whom also chairs a Committee with departmental responsibility and questions can be directed to the relevant chairperson as appropriate. The Current has written to each member of Council asking them to confirm that they will participate. Depending on the response, further details will follow in due course.
Image courtesy The Australian Independent Media Network