Where does an individual’s right to privacy end and a taxpayer’s right to know how their money is being spent begin?
That’s the crux of a dispute Northern Life has been quietly waging with the City of Greater Sudbury and the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario for the past couple of years. Unsuccessfully.
At issue is a settlement reached between the mayor’s office and a former staffer who claimed she was fired after complaining about suffering workplace harassment at the hands of Brian Bigger’s chief of staff, Melissa Zanette.
The facts of the case aren’t as important as the principle involved, but here’s a quick recap. Alicia Lachance, a public relations assistant in the mayor’s office, sued for wrongful dismissal, punitive damages and costs. She sought $300,000.
Lachance claimed Zanette, her superior, subjected her to daily criticism, bullied and intimidated her, was verbally abusive and stalked her on Facebook. She said Bigger fired her in November, 2015 after she asked for a private meeting to discuss the situation.
The mayor’s office has a different interpretation of events, basically characterizing Lachance as a less-than-competent employee who didn’t like her supervisor and refused to work with her.
None of these claims were tested in court, so we don’t know which story is true.
Originally, the mayor’s office vowed to fight the lawsuit, but then in May 2018 announced the two sides had settled for an undisclosed sum of money.
We don’t know why the mayor’s office decided to settle after two years of the case bouncing around the courts. Perhaps their defence wasn’t as strong as they thought or perhaps the expense of a protracted legal fight just became too high — we just don’t know.
When the settlement was announced, we asked how much money was involved and whether anyone admitted any wrongdoing. To us, this information should be public. The settlement was paid with taxpayers’ money, after all, and the conduct of one of the city’s top bureaucrats was under scrutiny.
The city refused to tell us. We filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The city denied it, citing a section of the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that prohibits the release of personal information. We appealed. It went to arbitration. We continue to appeal to the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario to release the information.
This has been going on, back and forth, since 2018. Our reasoning is straightforward: We believe the public has a right to know what was done with their money.
But it goes a little beyond that simple principle, we think. The basic facts of the case are public; the alleged bad behaviour of Melissa Zanette is public; the mayor’s office’s opinion of Alicia Lachance’s abilities is public; that a financial settlement was reached is public.
The only unknowns are how much Sudburians paid to settle the case and whether any wrongdoing was admitted.
It seems to us that for the Privacy Commissioner to allow this information to remain a secret legitimizes a dangerous precedent: When those paid from the public purse do something bad, that bad deed can be hidden from the taxpayer by paying a settlement to the accuser — and with the public’s own money no less.
To us, this flies in the face of transparency, it flies in the face of open government and it flies in the face of the public trust that gives government its legitimacy.
When it comes to hiding potentially bad behaviour by a government employee and using the taxpayers’ money to make that problem go away, that’s where an individual’s right to privacy must end, and where the public’s right to know begins.
Mark Gentili is the editor of Sudbury.com and Northern Life.