Opinion| New Protocol? City Hall Stonewalling Journalist’s Request for Answers

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In my many dealings with city hall over the years I have never been asked to provide my source when broaching a sticky subject.

That changed last week.

Al Horsman, the city’s chief administrative officer, asked for my source when I emailed him seeking information in regard to what I had heard was the disciplining of Richard Bishop, president of Sault Ste. Marie Professional Firefighters Association Local 529, for two letters critical of Fire Services he had written that had appeared on SaultOnline.

Bishop claimed in the letters that on Jan. 27 firefighters had been dispatched late to a motor-vehicle accident involving a tractor trailer and a passenger car, which resulted in serious injuries, and that on Feb. 5 they had not been dispatched at all to a motor-vehicle accident in which a board of works plow operator had to break the windshield to help people out of the vehicle.

The first letter was addressed to Chief (Fire Chief Mike Figliola); the second was addressed to mayor and council.

I had contacted the chief by email after I saw the letters and he replied that he was investigating.

On Feb. 15, Sault Star reporter Elaine Della-Mattia carried the results of the investigation, getting them from Horsman, not the chief.

She said Horsman in a written response said that in both incidents, calls were cited as medical emergencies and the local tiered response protocols of the provincial Central Ambulance Communications Centre system were followed.

“In each case, an ambulance was dispatched and arrived well within the mandated response time requirements,” his email read.

She said Horsman said that when paramedics arrived to the Feb. 5 call, the passengers had been freed from the vehicle so there was no need for extraction and fire services were not called to the scene.

It was after that story appeared that I was told that Bishop had been disciplined by the docking of a day’s pay for writing the letters.

In my original email to Horsman on Feb. 18, I said:

“I gather Richard Bishop, head of the firefighters union, has been disciplined and docked a day’s pay for the letters he wrote to SaultOnline. I am writing to inquire as to the reason for the discipline and docking of a day’s pay.”

In his reply that same day, Horsman said:

“Could you please advise where you received this understanding so that I can investigate and respond.”

Later that same day I replied:

“As people give me tips on the basis that I don’t reveal the source, I am afraid I can’t do that. Anyway, I would think the information should be within easy reach as besides yourself, the only other city officials involved would be Fire Chief Mike Figliola and Human Resources Director Peter Niro.”

Horsman got back to me the next day:

“I come from a major media family so understand fully your comments on not revealing sources. I nonetheless respectfully suggest that city administration cannot investigate what information (within easy reach or not) exists without knowing where /what is being sought. I therefore am happy to investigate and respond should you be able to provide such clarification.”

I am taking from the first sentence in the previous paragraph that he is backing off on his request that I provide him my source, since he essentially says he understands that protecting sources is a fundamental part of this business.

However, I don’t know what to take from his remarks that the city administration cannot investigate without knowing where/what is being sought but that he would be happy to respond if I could provide such clarification.

I thought I was pretty clear in saying that I was seeking the reason for the disciplining of Richard Bishop, the union president, and the docking of a day’s pay for the letters that had appeared on SaultOnline.

I had emailed Bishop for comment but on Feb. 19 still had not heard from him so I emailed the following to Horsman:

“I haven’t heard back from Richard Bishop yet. If he denies it, then it will end there. But if he replies in the affirmative, I hope that will be enough for you to investigate. Actually, if it turns out he has been disciplined, I am surprised you wouldn’t have been informed.”

On Feb. 21 I emailed Horsman again in regard to Bishop:

“I still haven’t heard anything from Mr. Bishop so it would seem we are at an impasse. I am contemplating submitting a Freedom of Information request, which seems the only way I get information out of the city these days.”

I got to speak briefly with Bishop by phone that night. He declined to comment.

Considering he was already in deep doo-doo, I had no problem understanding his reluctance to talk.

I have submitted a request through Freedom of Information for the written material that outlined to Bishop the discipline handed out to him and the reason(s) for it.

There may be some thoughts about personal privacy being involved in my request but there is an exemption subject to a public interest override. In it, the head of the organization must consider whether or not the public interest outweighs the interest in privacy.

I think there is public interest involved here as public safety is the basis of Bishop’s claim.

And anyway, Bishop is the only person affected and somehow I doubt he, considering he is the centre of the storm, would be upset if the information was made public.

It will, of course, be some time before I hear anything back from my Freedom of Information request but as far as I am concerned, based on what I heard from a source I consider reliable and nothing to the contrary coming from the city, Bishop was indeed disciplined.

When you think about it, “no comment” isn’t exactly a denial.

Anyway, I think I provided enough information to Horsman that he could easily put the question, if he indeed was in the dark, to the other two people who could be involved, the fire chief and Peter Niro, executive director, human resources.

I approached Horsman because he was quoted in Della-Mattia’s story and because previously, in regard to another matter, Niro had told me, “All correspondence regarding fire matters are to be addressed by the CAO.”

I find that worrying, a department head’s voice being taken away. I also find it worrying that a firefighter and union president can be disciplined for speaking his mind and a journalist has trouble getting an answer to a simple question.

Please, please, please tell me we do not have an unwelcome trend developing here.

Doug Millroy can be reached at dmillroy@gmail.com

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