It was necessary to go through access to information and wait four months to obtain simple data in Montreal, while an email to the communications department of the City of Lévis made it possible to obtain this same information in eight days.
Delays in obtaining a pool permit, parking meter revenue, mayor expenses, salaries: the questions posed to the ten largest cities in Quebec by Le Journal last June concerned data that should normally be made easily available by municipal administrations, note two researchers, Danielle Pilette, from UQAM, and Étienne Charbonneau, from ENAP.
Long in Trois-Rivières too
However, the delays in obtaining them were sometimes very long. Of the ten cities, eight referred us to the Access to Information process with one question or another.
It was in Trois-Rivières and Montreal that we took the longest: more than 100 days. According to the access law, however, cities have a maximum of 30 days to respond to a request.
"It's hard to imagine a scenario that includes valid and positive reasons why it takes so long or why a reporter is asked, for basic information, to make an access to information request" , asks Étienne Charbonneau, professor holder of the Canada Research Chair in Comparative Public Management at ENAP in Montreal.
“There is no real reason, in cities of 100,000 inhabitants and more [not to be transparent]. There are sometimes questions of an old culture of secrecy, ”says Danielle Pilette, associate professor of municipal management at UQAM.
Very fast in Lévis
Conversely, some cities have shown exemplary transparency, note the researchers.
Lévis is the only city to have answered all of our questions without contacting access. It took just eight days to get there.
This demonstrates “an information system capable of responding quickly and where there is not a culture of opacity,” emphasizes Professor Charbonneau.
Honorable mention to Terrebonne who put it all together in two weeks, even through access.
“The fact that there are some who responded in eight days takes away arguments for others to say that it is complicated and not possible. Why are some Cities able to do it in eight days, and others, it takes them a hundred? asks Mr. Charbonneau.
Saguenay also responded without addressing access, but his response was incomplete (see other text). Even after long delays, some Cities were unable to provide complete responses.
“We are in bureaucracies”, sums up Ms. Pilette.
This raises certain questions about the efficiency of cities, emphasizes Étienne Charbonneau.
In some cities, to have a complete portrait of the remuneration of elected officials, it is necessary to make a request for access to information, which is contrary to the requirements of transparency, judges an expert.
In our efforts undertaken last summer to obtain simple and updated data for 2022 such as the base salary of councillors, the amount of their expense allowance as well as the overall compensation of council members, we obtained mixed results, according to towns.
In some municipalities such as Sherbrooke, Quebec, Lévis, Saguenay, Trois-Rivières and Terrebonne, a request to the communications department made it possible to quickly obtain the salaries requested.
However, in Gatineau and Longueuil, it was impossible to receive the data requested by the communications department.
A request had to be made under the Access to Information Act, a process that involves delays of up to several weeks. The answer came to us after more than a month.
“This information should not be difficult for citizens to obtain,” says Étienne Charbonneau, professor holder of the Canada Research Chair in Public Management compared to ENAP.
“It shouldn't take journalistic work to do what you've done in weeks and months. If the Cities are proud and they are able to defend the choices they make, they should not hide those choices. »
Mr. Charbonneau believes that the information should be clearly displayed on the City's website under a "remuneration of elected officials" tab.
"It's a reflex that we have in Quebec, not just at the municipal level: everything is hidden until proven otherwise. »
Gatineau publishes the data on its website, but it is not up to date.
Access to information is still unequal in the 10 largest cities in Quebec. The Journal wanted to test the transparency of these organizations. We asked five questions to the communications department on relatively simple subjects that affect municipal life. The majority of cities took detours to provide us with information which, in some cases, took more than 100 days to reach us, which, according to experts, indicates a lack of openness at this level of government.
What were the questions asked?
1. The annual remuneration for 2021 of the five highest paid senior municipal officials
2. The average time to obtain a swimming pool installation permit for the years 2019, 2020 and 2021
3. Total cell phone and meal expenses for mayor's duties for 2019, 2020 and 2021
4. Revenue from parking meters collected by the City annually in 2019, 2020 and 2021
5. The salary of elected officials in 2022
The Journal asked the first four questions in a request to the Cities' communications department on June 1, 2022. Here are the details of the delays that were necessary in each of the major cities. The request on the salaries of elected officials had been the subject of a separate request. Eight cities (red dots in the map) referred us to access to information.
What the law says
Any citizen may request access to documents “held by a public body in the exercise of its functions”. If the information requested meets the criteria of the law, the access manager must provide it “diligently and at the latest within twenty days of the date of receipt of a request”. He can avail himself of a 10-day extension.
A pile of bills to book yourself
The Journal asked the Cities for the amounts of telephony expenditure by mayors per year, between 2019 and 2021. All responded, but some answers were more difficult. For example, the City of Quebec has chosen not to count cell phone costs.
"As regards the telephone costs, these have not been totaled, but we are sending you all the invoices for the period requested", wrote the registry office. Thus, Le Journal received a batch of invoices to calculate if we wanted to obtain the total amounts.
The invoices received were redacted, since they also included the data of other members of the firm.
On the other hand, Laval, Sherbrooke and Lévis counted all the amounts and responded with a clear table giving the total amounts.
The salaries of senior civil servants... but not the names
In Saguenay, Le Journal asked for the salaries of senior civil servants and their names, but only obtained the salary scales. Thus, we can know that the general manager of the municipality earns $205,000 per year and that the deputy general manager pockets $122,200 to $160,789.
In the communications department, it is explained that “our policy is to give titles and scales, but that the names fall into the category of nominative information”. However, it is emphasized that information on the identity of individuals is “easy to find”.
A short search allows you to find the organization chart of the municipality, which indicates the names of the people in office.
Experts Étienne Charbonneau and Danielle Pilette differ on this point. The first believes that the salaries should be disclosed, while the second believes that the Saguenay method is the right one.
Two measures for mayoral spending
In Montreal, two opposing situations arise when trying to find out the expenses of the mayor.
Regarding meals, the City is showing exemplary transparency, according to experts. Indeed, each expenditure is published on the municipality's website.
“Any reimbursement (travel expenses, meals, participation in a symposium, etc.) must [sic] be the subject of a resolution of the executive committee. Authorizations for the expenses of elected officials are available in open data, ”indicates the registry service.
However, for telephony, things are not so clear. While all the other cities provided amounts, Montreal cannot extract the data for the mayor. These are included in a group package.
We are provided with the overall contract between the City and Telus and we are told that "as there is data sharing (services between all users of this contract), there are no additional charges to the charges provided for in the contract for the apparatus of the mayor”.