Watchdog calls for stronger information law
Public must be able to scrutinize all publicly funded groups, says privacy czar

Jun. 22, 2005. 06:10 PM


The records of all Ontario organizations funded by taxpayers including hospitals and Children's Aid societies should be available to the public for scrutiny under the Freedom of Information law, the province's privacy commissioner said today.


"The public has the right to know how funds are being spent, who's doing what," said Ann Cavoukian, as she released her 2004 annual report.


Ontario's Freedom of Information law allows individuals, companies and media to file requests to government ministries and some Crown corporations forcing them to publicly disclose such things as expenses and audits.


Media organizations use the requests to ferret out news stories while political organizations use them to expose government mismanagement.


Ontario's FOI legislation was progressive when it was implemented in 1987, but now seems limited when compared to laws in other Canadian provinces where fewer publicly funded organizations are exempt, Cavoukian said.


There are hundreds of organizations in Ontario that receive large amounts of money from the government but cannot be scrutinized under the Freedom of Information law, Cavoukian said.


Hospitals, Children's Aid societies and community and health organizations are examples.


"The general records of these organizations are not subject to public review," Cavoukian said. Those records include budgets and spending and policy decisions.


The commissioner said she's "optimistic" that organizations which are currently exempt from the FOI law will understand the need for more openness since the public increasingly demands more accountability about how tax dollars are spent.


Management Board chairman Gerry Phillips says Ontario will look at extending the Freedom of Information laws further.


He pointed out that Ontario widened the law to include Crown electric utilities Hydro One and Ontario Power Generation over the last two years.


The province has also introduced a bill to extend the law to cover universities.


As well, Ontario's auditor was granted extra powers to examine the books of universities, colleges, hospitals and other publicly funded organizations.


The province also implemented a law to protect the health information of patients while ensuring individuals had access to their personal data.


New Democrat Marilyn Churley said smaller organizations won't have the staff to handle FOI requests if the law is expanded further.


"I don't think it's doable to bring it down to the smaller organizations like group homes," she said.


Cavoukian said organizations that can't afford staff to deal with formal requests should make it a point to be as open as possible as a general rule.