City of Brampton once again violates freedom of information legislation

·8 min read

The City of Brampton is once again violating provincial legislation around the public’s right to obtain information paid for by taxpayers.

Under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) public institutions governed by the Act have 30 days to respond to requests for taxpayer-funded public information with some exceptions, and this has been extended to 45 days during the pandemic.

The Pointer filed FOI requests with the City of Brampton in November to learn how three employees were hired in high-ranking positions despite being implicated in a fraudulent hiring scheme in Niagara Region, where they previously worked. Three of the requests are outstanding.

As of May 10, it has been 166 days since The Pointer filed the initial requests, and 90 days since the City reached out for clarification on two requests.

Tosin Adeyemi, an access & privacy coordinator, working directly under City Clerk Peter Fay, according to organizational charts, told The Pointer on March 30, “A few departments need more time to determine if they have responsive records.” A follow up response 37 days later on May 6 didn’t show any progress. “We are still waiting for responses from a few departments. Once these requisitions have been received, a decision will be issued,” she wrote in an email.

The Pointer then sent the City a detailed list of questions asking why the associated departments have delayed their response. The questions were not answered. The Pointer was instead provided with a generic response explaining how requests are handled, information already available through the City’s website.

Section 19 of the MFIPPA states the head of the FOI process within a public organization will “give written notice to the person who made the request as to whether or not access to the record or a part of it will be given,” within 30 days, with some time-based exceptions. The City has expanded its timeline to 45 days because of the “impact of COVID-19 on City Hall operations and staffing levels.”

The City has not provided The Pointer with any formal written notice.

CAO David Barrick also illegally violated the MFIPPA when he recently hired and tried to designate a staffer to oversee FOI requests, directly under his authority and reporting to him, without getting approval from Council.

The role is supposed to report directly to Council not the CAO, who the function is supposed to hold accountable.

The Act states only Council can designate the head, who oversees the FOI process. Angry councillors passed a motion restoring the City Clerk as the Council-designated head of the FOI function, under the rules of the provincial legislation, after they learned what Barrick had illegally done without their knowledge.

The three senior staffers The Pointer’s FOI requests focus on, including Barrick, all came from Niagara, where they were implicated in the fraudulent “Inside Job” CAO hiring scheme, as titled by the Ontario Ombudsman in his disturbing investigation report of the same name.

Jason Tamming was the first to be hired as director of strategic communications and his role has since been widely expanded into other key government areas, despite having no experience outside communications. Barrick was hired soon after as the chief administrative officer, the top bureaucratic position, to lead a team of about 5,000 employees, despite having no experience running even a small municipal department. Months later, Barrick hired Robert D’Amboise as the assistant director of corporate projects and liaison in the CAO’s office. All three were singled out by the Ontario Ombudsman for their conduct in the fraudulent Niagara Region hiring scheme.

Barrick tried to pressure senior staff at the Region to hire his boss at the time, Carmen D’Angelo, for Niagara’s most senior bureaucratic position and promised influence in return. Tamming and D’Amboise secretly provided the questions and answers for the CAO interview process to D’Angelo, who was given the job after the rigged hiring plan.

The FOI requests seek clarification on the City of Brampton’s procurement process to select Feldman Daxon Partners as the firm to hire the director of strategic communications, conversations between Tamming and Barrick and others to hire D’Amboise, and communication between Mayor Patrick Brown, Brampton’s CAO hiring committee, Tamming, and Barrick during the CAO recruitment process.

Brown has direct ties to all three men through Conservative political circles and was responsible for hiring Barrick. The mayor has publicly claimed, falsely, that Barrick was not implicated in the scathing “Inside Job” investigation report.

The search for answers could be complicated by Barrick and Brown’s frequent use of verbal communication and text messages instead of using official City platforms such as their official email accounts to address crucial City business. Proper use of communication is key to ensure accountability and transparency to the taxpayers who have the right to public information related to the use of their money.

Gurdeep (Nikki) Kaur, a whistleblower who was fired recently by Barrick before Council directed him to rehire her, showed The Pointer dozens and dozens of text messages she received from Barrick and Brown regarding official City business or the use of City resources.

Barrick texted her to contact one consultant, Menes Company (MenesCo), to develop plans for a Municipal Development Corporation. Kaur provided her phone to highlight the messages sent January 7 by Barrick, showing the details of the company he wanted Kaur to contact. The firm’s director, Brett Bell, has Conservative political ties and is close to Brown.

The Pointer took photos of the messages on her phone.

Bell, despite not having a registered company when he was contacted by the City for the consulting job, was handed a $300,000 contract for work he is not experienced to do.

Text messages, instead of an official communication platform, were also used by Brown when he instructed Kaur, along with City of Brampton staff, to help Peter MacKay’s bid to become leader of the federal Conservatives during his campaign last year. Kaur shared a copy of the series of texts Brown sent her around May 11, last year. In one message, Brown instructs Kaur to “please sign up memberships before May 15 to support to Peter McKay (sic).” Other text messages from the mayor to the City staffer directed her when to door knock for MacKay and how to sell Party memberships for him.

The frequent use of texts by Brown and Barrick make it difficult for the public to know what they are communicating and how City business is being run.

When Barrick was a Port Colborne councillor who sat on Niagara’s council he was part of a group of Conservative politicians, including some with direct ties to Brown, who tried to shut down media that reported on the CAO hiring scandal there.

The Pointer has frequently experienced difficulty obtaining public information and transparent responses from City officials since Barrick was hired as CAO in late 2019, under Brown’s direction.

Section 20 of the MFIPPA states the time limit of 30 days to respond to an official FOI request may be extended if a third party is involved or the request requires the search of a large number of records. In these instances, written notice has to be provided to the requestor outlining the length and reason of the extension. The Pointer did not receive any notice.

The Pointer is appealing the responses of two FOI applications, requesting how much the City spent on hiring Barrick and Tamming. The City would not provide the information and an appeal was sent to Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC). The government agency is currently addressing the City’s refusal to provide the information.

The City claims the requests were denied to protect the “trade secrets” of a third party. Similar claims in the past have been shot down by the IPC. One example is a 2012 ruling after Chris Bejnar, co-founder of Citizens For a Better Brampton, wanted square footage costs for the City Hall West Tower expansion that cost taxpayers $205 million. The IPC’s decision specifically noted this information should be shared “for public accountability in the expenditure of public funds.”

Barrick hired Uzma Ashraf as the privacy officer to take over the FOI function. Someone with the same name and spelling contributed to Brown’s mayoral campaign in 2018. The City has refused to confirm or deny she is the same person.

At the time of her hiring, Ashraf confirmed she was managing the freedom of information process since she was brought on, to the dismay of councillors who did not appoint anyone other than the City Clerk as the head of the crucial accountability function.

The Pointer has not received any indication of when the outstanding FOI requests will be addressed.

Email: nida.zafar@thepointer.com

Twitter: @nida_zafar

Tel: 416 890-7643

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Nida Zafar, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer