TTC Chair Talks Privacy, Councillors’ Text and Email Habits with the FOI Raccoon
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TTC Chair Talks Privacy, Councillors’ Text and Email Habits with the FOI Raccoon

Josh Colle discusses our FOI request, which he calls "invasive."

When TTC Chair Josh Colle (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence) received a recent freedom-of-information request from Torontoist, his first thought was, “That was a bit invasive.”

Then he called me to talk about it.

On Torontoist’s behalf, I made a freedom-of-information (FOI) request for Colle’s messages about SmartTrack/GO RER since January 1—from all of his accounts, including his personal one.

(If you’re new to FOI requests, read this.)

I made similar requests to Mayor John Tory about the Gardiner Expressway, and to Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) about Waterfront Toronto.

My last column explained why: Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner sent out a reminder that politicians can’t evade FOI law by sending messages about official government business on their personal accounts. I wanted to see if that was happening at City Hall, and private email addresses of several politicians were passed to me by a source.

None of the three responded to Torontoist’s interview request before the column was published, but after the FOI request reached his office, Colle set up an interview.

The TTC chair told me he has used his personal email account for city business—but it’s infrequent.

“I do inadvertently,” he says, “and sometimes staff, if I’m on vacation, will copy my personal email address, just because of what I might have access to, based on where I am. But I don’t typically use it. It’s just because if I’m at the cottage I have terrible reception and they just kind of copy them because it might be a better chance of getting to me, or if my BlackBerry is off.”

He said he searched his personal email account for message that meet the terms of the request from Torontoist—as the FOI legislation requires—and found none. One email, with draft speaking notes about the Scarborough subway, contained a passing reference to SmartTrack, but was outside of the timeframe of our request, he said.

When he sends emails to colleague’s personal accounts, it’s personal—like trying to get Councillor John Filion (Ward 23, Willowdale) to go to a concert with him.

But Colle couldn’t say if any of his colleagues use personal email, texts, or other messaging services for City business to try to evade FOI law. If any councillors are using unofficial accounts for City business, it might have to do with the devices they carry, according to Colle.

“A lot of councillors start carrying around two or three phones, it’s just absurd. You start looking like a suspicious dealer or something walking around your neighbourhood,” he says.

Most councillors text about City business, sometimes to set up a phone call, he said. And while that is out-of-reach of FOI, there’s no law against it.

He thought my request for messages about SmartTrack or GO RER to his personal account was “a bit invasive,” and said he was disturbed a City Hall source had disclosed his email address.

“For me it’s more a matter of trying to keep my personal life separate,” he said. “We have so little of it in this job—you can’t go to a grocery store or a kid’s hockey game or anything—and so for me it’s more trying to divide my worlds a little bit because it’s hard to do at all.”

People aren’t always nice to politicians, so there has to be private life for them to get away from it, Colle adds.

And that was that for the interview.

There’s a good reason why freedom of information is linked with privacy. Colle’s personal life shouldn’t be invaded because of his public service; it’s only when those realms mix that there’s a problem.

There’s a bright line between what’s public information and what’s private—what we have a right to access and what we don’t—and Torontoist doesn’t want to know anything about Colle’s private life. I didn’t ask him about his outing with Filion, his kid’s hockey games, or his cottage. He brought all of this up himself in response to a request for his records concerning a major transit project—and that’s public information.

The public is paying Colle. We’re paying for SmartTrack. We’re paying for the records he relies on to chair the TTC in our best interest. We have a right to know about the behind-the-scenes discussions concerning SmartTrack—or any transit project—in order to hold our government accountable. We have a right to know if major decisions affecting our city’s future are being made out of someone’s political self-interest or what’s best for Toronto.

That’s obvious, isn’t it? But in asking about a public project and government accountability, I got answers about the invasion of a politician’s private life, so it feels worth repeating: the media isn’t hounding Colle outside of City Hall—he’s not Rob Ford. I’m not a constituent approaching him at the grocery store, but I’d always assumed that was one of the joys and privileges of local democracy. None of this is personal, or about Colle.

Governments generally have bad track records on freedom of information. There’s good reason to be skeptical of public institutions. Just last week, British Columbia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, identified major weaknesses in Vancouver’s handling of FOI requests.

City officials’ failings included:

  • telling the requester there were no responsive records, when there actually were;
  • routinely deleting emails and other records that should have been saved and released to the public upon request;
  • allegedly changing the files names of sensitive documents in the city’s computer system so they couldn’t be located in response to requests;
  • giving requesters prohibitively high fee estimates by claiming the time it would take to retrieve the records was far greater than it actually was, causing members of the public to abandon their requests;
  • putting unreasonable delays on sensitive requests from media; being “curt” and “unhelpful” to requesters, even though they have a legal duty to assist the public with their requests;
  • and, oh yeah, only searching personal email and devices for records when it was specifically requested by the FOI applicant, even though officials had been regularly using personal email and devices for city business.

Most of us don’t have a commissioner’s power to find out what goes on with FOI requests behind the scenes. We can only make them and wait for an honest response.

Reminder: you can suggest FOI requests for Torontoist to make. Email suggestions to [email protected]. Here are two requests from readers, and one from Torontoist editor-in-chief David Hains.

  • I request all reports, studies, memos, briefings, backgrounders, polling data concerning the potential changes to the jurisdiction of the TTC and Metrolinx, including uploading of higher order transit to Metrolinx or amalgamating the two bodies. (Filed to both City Hall and the Ministry of Transportation.) (Credit: Jon Robson)
  • I request a breakdown of the total number of bylaw charges laid under Toronto’s Smoking Bylaw, by type of infraction (i.e. smoking within nine metres of an entrance of a building or smoking on children’s playgrounds) from January 1, 2015 to present. (Credit: Curtis Tokarchuk)
  • I request all documents related to Mayor John Tory’s Toronto Star op-ed published on July 27, 2016 (including but not limited to communications sent via personal and City accounts of the mayor and his staff, memos, and draft versions, but excluding publicly available City reports on the subject matter).

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