Edmonton’s upcoming budget includes spending $8 million on an unknown technology project but exactly what it is, at least so far, is not being disclosed to the public.
Administrative staff are suggesting council set aside tax dollars for an as-of-now secret project referred to only as an “in-private discussion item” in a report introducing the refreshed 2024 capital budget. No other details are provided.
The draft operating budget also offers few details. The same item is referred to in the introductory report as “open city and technology network operations” which requires recurring operating funding of $436,000, and the draft budget shows one full-time staff member would be dedicated to the project.
Postmedia requested more information from the city but the nature of the project is still a mystery. A staff member later said it is related to cyber security.
City council is expected to meet in private to discuss whether or not to pay for it.
Stacey Padbury, deputy city manager for financial and corporate services, declined to elaborate on what the money is for. The open city and technology branch is within the financial and corporate services division.
“We can confirm this is a project within the city’s open city and technology branch but, in adherence with our standard information security practices, will not release any specific details,” she stated in an email. “Discussion of this project would need to remain in private, pursuant to section 25 (disclosure harmful to economic and other interests of a public body) of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.”
This section of Alberta’s FOIP Act is discretionary, meaning that public agencies may refuse to disclose such information but are not legally required to do so.
Asked in a follow-up email why the city is choosing to withhold this information, Lori Yanish, communications staff for Padbury’s office, stated: “It’s not in the best interest of the corporation or citizens to have information of this nature in the public domain, therefore we stand by our original response.”
Yanish added, “As a matter of standard practice, the city does not disclose specific information related to cyber security publicly, so we don’t anticipate further updates.”
Disclosing is the norm, but not always
Andrew Sancton, a retired Western University political scientist who specializes in municipal governments, said he hasn’t heard of a situation like this before, but that doesn’t mean it never happens.
He understands why this kind of spending could raise questions but Sancton sees scenarios where keeping information private makes sense.
“It’s a perfectly legitimate question. You would think that people should know, and for almost all of the expenditures people do know — (however) I can imagine a perfectly legitimate reason why it would be kept confidential,” he said Friday.
For instance, if it is related to cyber security, a lawsuit, or securing a bid for a city project, these are reasons such information could be kept confidential.
“The general norm would be that the public should know what public money is being spent (on) but as I’ve just acknowledged, there could, in some circumstances, be exceptions to that … to protect the interests of the city,” he said. “It’s possible for me that could be a perfectly legitimate case that they’re making.”
Mayor Amarjeet Sohi’s office, asked for more information about the item, said he is following city administrators’ recommendations to keep it private.
Councillor will advocate for transparency
Ward sipiwiyiniwak Coun. Sarah Hamilton can’t recall seeing budget requests in private before, but said it isn’t unheard of and there can be exceptions.
However, Hamilton said she will advocate for this information to be made public after council has a chance to discuss it with city staff privately.
“Obviously we need to hear what city administration has to say, but I believe funding discussions should be made public,” she said. “Council and administration have to defend those funding decisions whether or not they happen, and you can’t do that if financial decisions are kept private.
“That’s my instinct — that we should be having these discussions in public once that reason for it being in private is properly contextualized.”
Last fall, tensions flared during a city council meeting after elected officials emerged from an in-camera discussion Postmedia later found was about paying for homeless shelter spaces in secret. That motion was ultimately defeated.