Ruling opens elections database

Reprinted with permission from the the Toronto Star

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Saturday, May 11, 2002

Phinjo Gombu

Toronto Star 


A Divisional Court panel has rejected attempts by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the City of Toronto to prevent The Star from having access to an electronic database of campaign donations made to political candidates in the 1997 municipal elections.

The ruling, released late yesterday, came after a judicial review of a decision by the commissioner upholding the city's refusal to disclose the database.

The Star first requested access to the database more than three years ago, under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Privacy Act.

The privacy commissioner agreed with the city that the act didn't require the release of such data and that releasing it would be an unjustified invasion of privacy.

The commissioner disagreed with The Star's position that having access to the information was important to ensure that campaign contribution limits had not been breached by donors.

The city took the position that because information on campaign donations, which number in the thousands, was already available for public perusal in paper format at the city clerk's office, there was no need to release the records in electronic form.

In its decision, the three-member panel of judges rejected concerns by the privacy commissioner that information released in electronic form could be massively manipulated, disseminated and used far beyond the purposes for which the information was collected.

"The view taken by the commissioner of the dangers of misuse of the database is not reasonable, particularly in the context of the present electronic age," the judges wrote in their unanimous decision.

"Public scrutiny of the democratic election process and the integrity of the process governing political campaign contributions is a matter of significant public importance.

"The collective legislative scheme constitutes a policy that recognizes that public accountability in the election process should, where necessary, override individual privacy interests," the judges wrote.

Lawyer Paul Schabas, who argued the case for The Star, called the issue precedent-setting because it dealt squarely with the contentious issue of electronic data and government reluctance, in some cases, to release it to the public.

"It rejects the city's and commissioners' position that they should be concerned about the difference between paper and electronic data," Schabas said.

"What's important is that it is a ringing endorsement by the courts that the Freedom of Information legislation is there to further democracy, even where it involves overriding some privacy interests," Schabas said.

"It's significant that the courts said the decision of the city and the commission was not only wrong, but an unreasonable decision."

The Information and Privacy Commissioner could not be reached for comment.

Rita Reynolds, the City of Toronto's corporate access and privacy officer, said she could not comment on the judicial order.

She said any release of records would depend on whether the commissioner decided to appeal the decision to a higher court.

"If (the privacy commissioner) appeals, it stops everything," Reynolds said.

The provincial and federal governments already release their electronic records of election campaign donations in varying forms, leaving only municipal governments such as Toronto's claiming that there is a difference between paper and electronic documents.

Ontario Information & Privacy Commissioner ruling: MO-1366

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