Getting government to disclose its costs is an Olympian ordeal

By Stanley Tromp, The Province [Vancouver, B.C.], 11 Feb. 2010

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As Vancouver prepares to host the world at the 2010 Olympic Games, the event happens to run concurrently with a legislative committee's ongoing work to review B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Inevitably the question has arisen on how well the B.C. government has followed the letter and spirit of the act regarding the Games.

"VANOC has adopted policies that make it the most transparent Olympic organizing committee ever in the history of the Olympic movement," Colin

Hansen, minister for the Olympics, proudly stated in the legislature on April 28, 2008. "Every single dollar that is spent by the provincial government with regard to the staging of the Olympic Games is totally subject to public scrutiny."

To this end, he explained, VANOC holds press briefings after all of its board meetings, and posts all its agreements and financial reports on its website.

Those are welcome measures indeed. But sadly they may be outweighed by grievous gaps in accountability. For some journalists, the most challenging game is finding more records on the Games' finances and operations.

For example, the B.C. government refused to include VANOC under the Freedom of Information law. Yet an entity that develops venues for the 2012 Olympic Games in Britain, the Olympic Delivery Authority, is covered by the British FOI law.

Its website notes that "the ODA has developed a publication scheme, approved by the Information Commissioner, which lists the classes of information made available by the ODA on request, and how to request information in the relevant categories."

A summary of expenses for the ODA chairman, the chief executive (whose $400,000 bonus was published), the board members and directors is available on the London 2012 website -- which is itemized for hotel, entertainment and other costs.

In B.C., however, VANOC is also not covered by the Document Disposal Act, which sets rules for record preservation, nor the Financial Information Act, which mandates the publication of salaries and expenses, and payments to suppliers. (VANOC does publish bid winners but not their contract amounts.)

VANOC publishes sketchy two-page "agendas and decisions" of its board meetings, but not minutes. Instead, to study the bulk of the Olympic financial iceberg, I had twice obtained through quarterly FOI requests several hundred pages of meeting minutes of the Games Secretariat, a branch of the B.C. government funded by taxpayers with a $9.5 million operating budget last year. The minutes arrived four months late and with about one-third blanked out.

On the third attempt I was startled to be told that there were "no records," simply because the Secretariat had stopped recording minutes. The Secretariat spokesperson said that keeping minutes was "not an effective management tool." I have since been asking the government what that term means, with no reply.

Moreover, I used to obtain copies of minutes of VANOC meetings that it had forwarded to the Secretariat, but then VANOC stopped forwarding those, so this tenuous supply route of information was cut off too.

Regarding who can watch the Games in person, VANOC says that one-quarter of its 1.6 million tickets have been reserved. Of these, several thousand prime tickets were allocated for politicians and other VIPs and their spouses before the public had any chance to buy them.

It's known that the B.C. government has been allotted more than 4,000 tickets at a cost of nearly $1 million. But details are lacking, so last August I made an FOI request to the ministry responsible for the 2010 Games for the ticket allotment policy, lists of recipients, their categories and the costs.

After months of delay, the ministry replied. It withheld all the records under four exemptions of the B.C. FOI Act. Olympics minister of state Mary McNeil now says some more ticket details will be revealed, but only after the Games are all over.

By contrast I did receive many such records on tickets from Heritage Canada under the federal Access to Information Act, and from B.C. municipalities which released them under our B.C. FOI law, or even without FOI.

While B.C.'s FOI law remains overall the best in Canada, it is still a very modest achievement within the world context, and it far too often fails in practice. Yet we could amend our FOI statute so it could reach for the Olympic gold medal among the world's transparency laws. Why indeed could the B.C. government not become "faster, higher, stronger" in setting a new standard for the public's right to know?

-- Stanley Trompís report on B.C.'s FOI law, The Road Forward, is posted at www3.telus.net/index100/foi

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