The public has a right to know

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By Don McHoull

For years Hydro One was mired in waste and corruption.

Well-connected Tories were handed fat contracts to do very little work. In one case, the publicly owned power company paid $105,000 to Queen’s Park insider, and received only an e-mail in return.

Only when the newly elected Liberal government changed the law to make Hydro One subject to the freedom of information ruled did this come to light.

Under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, members of the public can request records and documents be made available. Hydro One can only withhold information from the public if it can provide a valid reason, such as avoiding violating privacy rights or interfering with a legal investigation.

Few would argue that requiring Hydro One to open up its records has not benefited the public. The public has a right to know how it’s money is spent.

When public organizations are allowed to operate behind a curtain of secrecy, they are held accountable to no one, and corruption is allowed to bloom.

Despite this, universities are still exempt from the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. When the act was drafted in 1987, universities and hospitals were exempt because they were not considered to have a governmental function.

As part of their self-proclaimed commitment to openness and transparency, the provincial Liberals are considering expanding the reach of the act to include other governmental agencies, including universities.

Currently, Ryerson, like most other universities in the province, follows information access guidelines  laid down by the Council of Ontario Universities.

In principal, these are fine guidelines. “As a general rule, information contained in University records should be available to the University community and to members of the public more generally,” reads section 1a of the guidelines.

The problem however is that we have guidelines instead of set rules. The university is accountable to no higher authority. At the end of the day, the president and the Board of Governors have the final say over what gets released. There are so many exemptions, that it would be easy for the university to avoid releasing any information it found to be embarrassing.

Of course its important to respect people’s rights to privacy, and to avoid releasing information that would hurt the university in business deals. Making universities subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act would still allow for these protection. At the same time though, it would make universities directly accountable to a higher authority and strengthen the public’s right to information.

The public has a right to know how publicly funded agencies are run. Universities should be no exception.

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