NB Ombud sides with town: Fire Dept. report can remain secret

Ombud Marie-France Pelletier (Government photo)

New Brunswick’s newly appointed Ombud has decided the town was right when it refused to release a consultant’s report that assessed working conditions within Sackville Fire & Rescue.

In a letter e-mailed today to Warktimes, Ombud Marie-France Pelletier writes that the confidentiality of the report from Montana Consulting of Moncton is protected under Section 20 of the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (RTIPPA).

That section excludes the release of records that pertain to investigations into personnel or harassment matters.

The town hired Montana Consulting after Warktimes reported a year ago that about 17 volunteer firefighters had resigned over a five-year period because of persistent bullying, sexism, intimidation and favouritism within the department.

Since it received the Montana report last September, the town has refused all requests to release it on the grounds that its results and 20 recommendations are “human resources related” and therefore, should remain confidential.

In today’s letter, Pelletier sides with the town and says no further investigation is needed.

Her ruling caps a year-long sequence of events including a series of legal arguments between The New Wark Times and the Ombud’s office.


Legal arguments

  • September 20, 2021Warktimes writes to Town Clerk Donna Beal requesting a copy of the Montana report under New Brunswick’s Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
  • October 19, 2021: Beal responds by denying access to the report citing Section 20 of RTIPPA, which refers to personnel or harassment investigations.
  • November 22, 2021Warktimes files a complaint with the Ombud arguing that:


    I feel the town is violating the spirit of RTIPPA, which is that information should be public with specific exceptions. In this case, the town is refusing to release any part of the Workplace Assessment including any of its 20 recommendations. This is a matter of considerable public interest since local taxpayers pay almost a million dollars per year for the fire protection provided by volunteers. Aside from the complaints from the firefighters themselves, there are safety implications for the town, especially when firefighters are quitting the department. The town CAO has said all of the recommendations will be implemented, but it won’t be possible to judge that if they are kept confidential. The CAO is also in a potential conflict of interest since several current and former firefighters complained that neither he nor his predecessor responded to their concerns.

    • January 26, 2022: Chantal Gionet-Bergeron, senior legal counsel in the Ombud’s office sends a lengthy e-mail arguing, in effect, the town was right to refuse access to the Montana report under Section 20 of RTIPPA. She also cites a previous case in which members of the fire department in Tracadie were denied access to a workplace assessment report. To read her full e-mail, click here.
    • January 26, 2020: Warktimes responds disagreeing with her findings and explaining the reasons why. To read those reasons, click here.
    • January 27, 2022: Gionet-Bergeron replies that much of the information in the Montana report would be protected under Section 26(1) which concerns advice to a public body and that the threshold for public interest disclosure under Section 33.1 had not been met. To read her full response, click here.
    • February 4, 2022: After Warktimes asks that the matter be referred to the Ombud for review, I file additional arguments based on a newly released international training manual for judges on upholding democracy compiled by the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy. To read that e-mail, click here.
    • April 12, 2022: Warktimes reports that Sackville Fire & Rescue is still in a state of crisis a full year after the initial reports of its workplace troubles.
    • April 22, 2022: Ombud Marie France-Pelletier denies Warktimes access to the Montana report. To read her letter, click here.

To read the official biography of the new Ombud, click here.

To read a CBC story in which opposition members question her independence as a former staff member in the office of Conservative Premier Bernard Lord, click here.

This is Warktimes’s second go-round with the Ombud’s office. The first one also ended in defeat last year when former Ombud Charles Murray upheld the legality of  secret town council budget meetings.

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6 Responses to NB Ombud sides with town: Fire Dept. report can remain secret

  1. Jon says:

    RTIPPA requests are often denied if any avenue exists to maintain government secrecy. NB’s feeble commitment to the public’s right to information was weakened further when the province closed the office of the Access to Information and Privacy Commissioner and rolled the office’s duties into the Ombuds.

    In these circumstances, the only apparent access is what is granted to parties to the investigation (ex. the firefighters):

    20(2) The head of a public body may disclose to the
    applicant who is a party to the harassment investigation
    or personnel investigation the information referred to in
    paragraphs (1)(b) and (c) by allowing the applicant to
    examine the records, but the head may refuse to provide
    the applicant copies of the record

    Have you asked any of the parties to the investigation whether they’ve been given access to the report and other documents?

    Comment from Bruce Wark: No one has been given access to the report. The volunteer firefighters received a briefing on the recommendations, but were given nothing in writing. They were asked not to disclose anything said at their briefing. As far as I know, members of town council have not seen the report with the possible exception of the mayor.

  2. Peter says:

    The Washington Post displays as its motto: “Democracy dies in darkness”. Such is the state of affairs from National to Local affairs with regard to the public’s right to know what the gatekeepers judge to hide from their citizens

  3. Les Hicks says:

    Thank you Bruce for your ongoing efforts to effect change in the manner in which our municipal government handles information that should be made available to the taxpayers in our town. Your investigation into this matter illustrates perfectly the fact that our provincial RTIPPA is actually designed to prevent citizens from obtaining information about possible problems with the way our various levels of government work, rather than making that information accessible.

    I worked for Alberta’s Department of Environment when the Environment Minister, Ralph Klein, was issuing approvals for new pulp mills on the Athabasca River after studies done by Alberta Environment itself demonstrated that the river could not handle the effluent that would be produced by more mills. Those of us disgusted with his denial of his own department’s scientific findings cynically referred to the Ministry as the Department of Rape the Environment. I mention this simply to suggest that in the same light the Right to Information and Privacy Act should be more aptly named the Right to Privacy Act.

  4. Kata List Productions says:

    It might be time to create a workforce of paid firefighters under the Chief that act professionally and don’t do smears and character attacks on the Chief… the process to hire good people would be put to Bowser and that would probably be a workable solution as it seems there are some deep conflicts with the volunteers and personalities that are clashing there.

    • jdon1980 says:

      I Totally agree!

    • Les Hicks says:

      Sally, have you considered how much more it would cost Sackville taxpayers to pay for a fire department composed of full-time paid firefighters rather than our present contingent of dedicated, volunteer firefighters who devote countless hours of their spare time to training and emergency responses? You claim that the fire department chief has been smeared and had his character attacked by fire department members. What is the basis of your claim? Are you a member of the fire department? Have you considered that the deep conflicts amongst the volunteers are in fact due to poor management, favouritism, and harassment, as claimed by the volunteers that Bruce interviewed about this issue? Has it occurred to you that 17 resignations in a relatively short time period might indicate that there are indeed serious management issues that lead to those resignations? Do you not see a potential conflict of interest in the town’s CAO controlling what information is released from a report that deals with complaints made against him? As long as the town management continues with its climate of secrecy and prevents access to the contents of the consulting firm’s report, town councilors and we taxpayers, including you, will not have the ability to determine for ourselves the reasons for the serious morale problems in the fire department.

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