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Information and Transparency
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02-May-2011 [131]

posted July 25, 2005


On Wednesday June 22, our little team of CELOS researchers went to the offices of the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner for an inquiry into a freedom of information request we submitted last year. We were trying to find out how the City of Toronto spent the $4.3 - $5.2 million (estimates vary) that was earmarked for playground repairs to City park playgrounds after so much good playground equipment was pulled out of parks, resulting from the new CSA-prescribed playground safety standards. (The CSA is the Canadian Standards Association – an association of mainly manufacturers, barely over 50% Canadian.) City Council set aside those repair funds in 2000. But a group of playground advocates, Playground Lobby for Active Youth (P.L.A.Y.), led by Maya Litman, has been monitoring parks playgrounds, and has been asking the City: how come so many park playgrounds lost equipment that was not replaced, or replaced with cheap, dumbed-down equipment?

Our park's playground lost a slide, the fireman’s pole, a tire climber, and the jiggly bridge, with more listed for removal. We asked the City to let us know where the money went to replace what they removed at our playground and at others across the city. The City responded: it would cost us $12,690 for them to find all the receipts of what was done with the playground repair money. We asked the City to waive the fee, in the public interest. The City responded that public interest is not relevant here. What’s relevant, they said at the freedom of information inquiry, is that the law says institutions don’t have to produce a record where none exists – if they didn’t make a list of where they spent the $4.3 million repair money, there’s no need to show us anything.

The inquiry was held in a fourteenth-floor boardroom at the government offices on 2 Bloor Street East. Our team was: Jane Price, Luke Cayley, Jutta Mason, and Maya Litman. The City sent two lawyers, plus Jamie Warren (playground construction supervisor), Julia Madden (assistant to Parks and Recreation General Manager Brenda Librecz), and City of Toronto Corporate Access acting manager Rob Candy.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. we went back and forth between the boardroom and little windowless conference rooms that lock electronically as soon as you’re in them (unsettling if you’re at all claustrophobic). We talked all together and tried to work out compromises with a mediator, but in the end, no offer was close to what we wanted. So the government adjudicator, Ms.Beverly Caddigan, was left to decide. A week later she issued her decision: the City had successfully convinced her that their staff had looked as hard as was necessary to find the playground repair receipts. They couldn’t find the records we asked for anywhere, so the information of how and where the $4.3 million was spent will not have to be revealed.

If you want to read more about this issue, go to ([[http://)]]? and click on "research" or "city playgrounds." There is a lot of detail there, about this appeal and about other freedom of information appeals coming up. (The City of Toronto also won’t tell us how many claims they have had to pay out for playground-related injuries, or even what their insurance premiums are – on the grounds that it would cause the city economic injury to give us that information. Both refusals are being appealed to the province.) The appeal to find out where the $4.3 million (plus?!?) playground repair money went was sponsored by park friend Kate Robertson and her family through our "buy a City secret" program last Christmas. Our case to the province was put together by the CELOS team that went to the hearing plus two other hard-working sleuths: Belinda Cole and Eric Marsden. We lost this round, but we’re not finished with the issue (not even close). In fact, this experience has led us to get serious about incorporating our little park research group: CELOS, the CEntre for LOcal Research into Public Space. Local research done by ordinary people who get a bit mad: that has some potential. And there are some funny moments, such as when the City sends lawyers to an inquiry, to prove that they have no book-keeping.

Read the adjudicator's ruling.