Trustees and school board staff may have had a lot of questions — and “interactions… may have been unpleasant” — but there’s no evidence of tampering or interference with documents requested by the Star, the province’s information and privacy commissioner’s office says.
Instead, confusion about the freedom-of-information request was to blame, including which version of the trustee expense report was to be released, compounded by summer vacation schedules which “contributed to a lack of follow-up and overall delays which surrounded the processing of this FOI request,” says a report by assistant commissioner David Goodis.
Last October, the Star obtained emails sent by the Toronto public school board’s FOI co-ordinator, Maria Mavroyannis — a lawyer herself — who said she had to hire outside legal help because of trustees’ meddling with a report on their expenses, which included claims for a trip to Israel, hand cream and hotel stays in the city.
Other emails from Mavroyannis, also obtained under freedom-of-information legislation, showed she felt there was “clear interference in my ability to carry out the FOI request responsibly” given all the emails and discussions among staff and trustees about the information to be released, as well as several versions of the audit — including one that was “entirely inconsistent with the discussions we have had and deliberately obfuscates what information has been changed in the reports.”
However, Goodis said after interviewing staff and several trustees, he believes it was a lack of follow-up by the FOI office — in part because of staff holidays — “to determine exactly what the responsive record was, ultimately led to unnecessary confusion among the auditor, the FOI office and the trustees.”
There was also debate among trustees and staff whether versions of the report were “working papers” and if they are exempt from requests. (They are not.)
Whether by email, phone or in-person meetings, and “although some of these interactions between trustees and staff may have been unpleasant” no “evidence of document tampering or inappropriate influence or interference” was found, Goodis reported.
Mavroyannis had singled out Trustee Shelley Laskin and the board’s auditor, and Laskin said Wednesday she was “very concerned with the allegations that spoke directly to my personal integrity” and is pleased they were dismissed by the commissioner.
“I have always been honest, open and accountable to my constituents, and I will continue to do so. We need an end to individuals being targeted.”
The auditor also told Goodis she had not felt under any pressure to alter documents.
Goodis makes several recommendations, including ensuring enough staff are on duty in the FOI office “to adequately respond to FOI requests,” as well as providing training to staff and trustees about the freedom-of-information process.
He also noted that while the board has begun to disclose trustee expenses online, the information posted is several months out of date and provides little detail of how public money is spent.
In an emailed response to the Star, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said the board “takes transparency and accountability seriously and will be complying with the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s recommendations.
“With respect to trustee expenses, earlier this year, trustees voted to post detailed expenses online and this should be completed shortly,” Bird added.
Amir Attaran, an expert in freedom of information requests and a professor at the University of Ottawa, said he had not seen the report, but “I suspect the offence does not require intentional interference, which if true casts this decision in some doubt.”
Mavroyannis resigned from the board earlier this year, one of a handful of senior staff to leave amid widespread turmoil within Canada’s largest school board.