Public interest trumps privacy for contracts of Alberta public officials

Arbitrator orders disclosure of salary and benefits data withheld by public bodies after request for information

The office of the Alberta privacy commissioner has ruled disclosure of the employment contracts of two public service employees is allowed under privacy legislation and is in the public’s best interest.

On Feb. 18, 2005, requests were made for information on the employment contracts of the former chief of staff in the premier’s office and the former representative of Alberta in Washington, D.C. The public bodies involved, the Executive Council and Alberta International Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Relations, agreed to the requests on June 30 and July 4, 2005, respectively.

However, some of the information wanted by the applicant was not included. The missing information included the salaries of the individuals, term of the contracts, address information and signatures of the parties to the contracts. The public bodies argued this was personal information which they couldn’t disclosure under the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP). They also claimed releasing the information would hurt their economic interests by exposing the details of terms they negotiated with the employees.

The applicant filed a complaint with the office of the privacy commissioner, claiming both jobs were in the public eye and had been the subject of public discussion. It also claimed disclosure of that information was in the public interest.

The adjudicator noted FOIP allows for the disclosure of personal information if it’s been consented to or the information is about the “classification, salary range, discretionary benefits or employment responsibilities as an officer, employee or member of a public body or as a member of the staff of a member of the Executive Council.”

The adjudicator said FOIP allows the disclosure of information about employment benefits of public employees so there could be transparency to the pay and benefits they receive. The representative in Washington had, in fact, agreed to public disclosure of his salary as a condition of employment.

The adjudicator found the salaries and benefits of senior officials are included in the financial statements of a ministry’s annual report, so some of the disputed information was already publicly available.

Vacations, insurance benefits, pension options, disability plans and termination notice and pay were all negotiated at the discretion of the government, and thus constituted discretionary benefits, the adjudicator said. These details in the employment contract of a public employee are allowed to be disclosed under FOIP.

The adjudicator acknowledged that signatures are “recorded information about an individual” and qualify as personal information. However, those who signed the employment contracts were acting in their capacities as authorities which authorized the contracts and without them it would be unclear whether the contract was legally binding, she said. The signatures were key to the validity of the contract and public scrutiny of it. Therefore, including the signatures of the authorizing individuals and the employees was reasonable disclosure.

The public bodies argued disclosing certain details of the employment contracts of their employees exposed them to economic risk and harmed their negotiating position in future contract negotiations. They claimed it would lead to standardized employment terms with few choices left in recruiting senior officials.

The adjudicator disagreed with this argument, finding the public bodies’ fears were related to more general terms and not any specifics of these two contracts.

“The harm that the public bodies project does not relate to the disclosure of the specific information at issue,” the adjudicator said. “Instead, the projected harm appears to be related to disclosure of contracts and contractual provisions in general.”

Given the status of the two employees as public officials and disclosure of the withheld information was allowable under FOIP because of its relevancy to the public interest, the adjudicator ruled both contracts should be disclosed in their entirety.

“Public accountability is at the heart of the terms in which public bodies hire senior officials,” the adjudicator said. “The government has issued press releases in relation to the appointment of chiefs of staff, indicating that there is a public interest component in the hiring of the position.”

For more information see:

Office of the Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner, Order F2006-007 (Oct. 12, 2007), T. Cunningham, Adjudicator.
Office of the Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner, Order F2006-008 (Oct. 12, 2007), T. Cunningham, Adjudicator.

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