A top provincial government spin doctor has advised the Vancouver Island Health Authority's supposedly non-partisan communications staff not to put sensitive information in writing, according to a leaked email. The reason: apparently, to prevent New Democrats from accessing that information via legislation allowing British Columbians to request copies of government documents.
In an email sent the day after the election, authority media and issues advisor Suzanne Germain writes "we all know this already...but a reminder and request from the Ministry Communications Director (Michelle Stewart): Even before the election, the volume of (freedom of information) requests at the Ministry from the opposition were (sic) increasing...This trend will likely continue now. The reminder is for us to use the phone a lot more than we have been. If you don't want it on the front page of (The Times Colonist), don't put it in E mail."
Reached on her cell phone, Ms. Germain - who is vacationing in the Gulf Islands - acknowledged the existence of the email. But when asked her why Ms. Stewart was advising authority communications staff not to put sensitive information in writing she said, "you've kind of gotten me at a really, really crappy time here," advised us to phone back and hung up. Ms. Germain - who is married to CH Victoria news director Rob Germain - did not return a subsequent call by publication time, having appeared to have turned off her phone (note to Ms. Germain: avoiding the media doesn't make us go away).
More talkative was Carol Carman, executive director of communications at the health ministry and Ms. Stewart's boss. In an interview, Ms. Carman explained Ms. Stewart gave that advice because the director was concerned some government emails may have incomplete information in them that could be misinterpreted. So it would better not to have that information make it into the public domain.
This isn't the first time the Campbell administration has been caught trying to avoid freedom of information requests. Two years ago, brother muckraker Russ Francis reported the then deputy minister to the premier Ken Dobell told those attending a conference on freedom of information and accountable government that he deletes emails as fast as he can and doesn't write down meeting notes - presumably so they couldn't be accessed by media freedom of information requests. A version of this article was originally published in today's edition of 24 hours. The following is a copy of Ms. Germain's email.
From: Germain, Suzanne
Sent: Wednesday, May 18, 2005 8:13 AM
Subject: The changed climate...
We all know this already...but a reminder and request from the Ministry Communications Director:
Even before the election, the volume of FOI requests at the Ministry from the opposition were increasing - and they were sometimes asking for materials from specific individuals (ie communications staff). This trend will likely continue now. The reminder is for us to use the phone a lot more than we have been. And no briefing notes on locally changed climates, please...
If you don't want it on the front page of the TC, don't put it in E mail...
Please note new E mail address: Suzanne.Germain@viha.ca
Media & Issues Advisor
Vancouver Island Health Authority
Healthy People, Healthy Island Communities, Seamless Service