City hiding behind technicalities

In the wake of the multi-million dollar cost overrun on the Willow Cale Bridge crossing of Haggith Creek, The Citizen requested all of the engineering documents on the project, including a legal opinion the City of Prince George obtained about whether a lawsuit could recover some or all of those extra costs.

Last week, the city provided numerous reports that show the site was reviewed extensively, both before the first stage of construction and after the problems emerged within weeks of the bridge reopening.

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But there was no legal opinion or any engineering documents that speaks to what went wrong.

The city, as is its right, is refusing to share that legal opinion, in whole or part, citing issues around confidential legal communication, confidential communications in closed meetings and recommendations made in confidence to local government.

These are all legitimate concerns, except that governments also have the authority to release those communications or a summary of them if they are in the public interest.

There are plenty of current examples of governments doing exactly that.

In the United States, the federal government released a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on the 2016 presidential election and whether Donald Trump's campaign violated any laws.

In Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybound was allowed to provide limited testimony and share some internal communications regarding SNC-Lavalin, as were then-advisor to the prime minister Gerald Butts and then-clerk of the privacy council Michael Wernick.

In B.C., the provincial government has shared numerous documents, including Speaker Darryl Plecas's report, into the suspension (and police investigation) of the legislative clerk and sergeant-at-arms.

In all three of the above examples, there are sensitive legal, confidentiality and privacy issues in play and in all three cases, the governments have chosen to release as much information as possible as a matter of transparency and significant public interest.

In Prince George, however, local government is refusing to provide any information whatsoever beyond one sentence in a Feb. 26 report from Dave Dyer, the general manager of engineering and public works, to city council.

"The City has had the opportunity to obtain external legal and engineering advice regarding this matter and will not be proceeding with any legal cost recovery actions against any of the parties involved in the design, delivery, or construction of the Willow Cale Road Bridge project," he wrote.

The Citizen appealed the city's initial refusal to release the legal opinion, citing section 13(2)(m) of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which reads that the head of a public body must not refuse to disclose information that the head of a public body has cited publicly as the basis for making a decision or formulating a policy.

The emailed response from Walter Babicz, the city's general manager of administrative services, sent late Thursday was the following: "This sentence from the staff report simply states that firstly, the City obtained legal advice, and secondly, the City has chosen not to proceed with any legal cost recovery action. That statement is not from the head, and does not cite the legal advice as the basis for the decision not to proceed, but merely states two objective facts."

From a legal and bureaucratic standpoint, his response makes perfect sense.

From a practical, political and public relations standpoint, however, his response not only makes no sense, it's counterproductive.

For starters, Dyer may not be the head of the public body in a legal sense but the written and verbal comments made by a senior manager of the city, especially ones addressed specifically to mayor and council - the actual head of the public body - sheds light on the basis for the city's decision. Furthermore, it suggests that the decision may have been made internally, without any political input whatsoever, and mayor and council are simply being informed of the decision.

Lastly, characterizing Dyer's words as simply stating two objective facts, with the second fact - "(the city) will not be proceeding with any legal cost recovery options" - being somehow disconnected from the first fact - "The City has had the opportunity to obtain external legal and engineering advice" - is the kind of technical tomfoolery that gives lawyers and bureaucrats a bad name.

In basic communications, whether it's between two people or between an elected official and constituents, stating two objective facts together with "and" binds those facts together into a complete statement. That's simply a matter of common courtesy and trust.

This seems to be just the latest in a series of tone-deaf decisions by city management, followed either by silence or excuses from their political masters.

At some point, mayor and council must stop accepting the recommendations of senior staff as if they are written in stone and cannot be questioned, challenged or rejected. City council has the political authority to order the release of information explaining why the city isn't pursuing legal action to cover some or all of the millions of dollars in unexpected costs related to the Willow Cale Bridge.

Mayor and councillors should do so in the spirit of government transparency, to hold themselves fully accountable to constituents and, most of all, because it's the right thing to do.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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