The City of Hamilton is giving the owners of University Plaza a $10,000 tax rebate for 2018 related to renovations at the plaza.
Asked for the City documents supporting the rebate, City of Hamilton Director of Communications Matthew Grant said the City could not provide them, claiming doing so may violate the privacy of University Plaza.
Asked to provide the reasoning for stating these documents were exempt under these acts, Grant did not answer the question.
Section 9 of the SPPA states the documents considered and reasoning of the City are public documents. “In a written hearing, members of the public are entitled to reasonable access to the documents submitted, unless the tribunal is of the opinion that clause (1) (a) or (b) applies”.
Documents can be withheld by the City of Hamilton if “matters involving public security may be disclosed” or “intimate financial or personal matters or other matters may be disclosed at the hearing of such a nature, having regard to the circumstances, that the desirability of avoiding disclosure thereof in the interests of any person affected or in the public interest outweighs the desirability of adhering to the principle that hearings be open to the public”.
Asked why the City of Hamilton believes these exceptions apply, Grant responded “I’m actually not the decision maker but rather the person in charge of media relations handling this inquiry … we would be happy to help you get the information you seek. If you have specific questions, I can likely get the information for you in short order. If you are looking for third-party information that contains personal information, we are obligated to review that material and ensure we are not releasing personal information. As I’ve mentioned, Joey. We are happy to help you with your reporting in any way we can. We have no intention of denying you information that you are entitled to. We just have to be diligent that we don’t provide you somebody’s personal information that you are not entitled to.”
Asked who the decision makers are, Grant state the power is delegated to staff by Council.
TPR asked how the renovation of a commercial plaza could be an “intimate financial or personal matters or other matters may be disclosed at the hearing of such a nature, having regard to the circumstances, that the desirability of avoiding disclosure thereof in the interests of any person affected or in the public interest outweighs the desirability of adhering to the principle that hearings be open to the public”.
Grant did not answer the question, instead stating the City is committed to transparency and could not provide an answer due to the need to conduct a privacy review of the matter.
Metroland’s Dundas Star also attempted to get the City to explain. The City did not provide answers to them either but did state that the appeal “was submitted under the reason of repairs (or) renovations preventing normal use of part of the property for at least 90 days and the recommended property tax reduction of $10,608.88 pertains to the 2018 tax year”.
Grant repeatedly deflected questions requesting the reasoning. He requested The Public Record not state the City declined to provide information.
“I’d really appreciate you not attributing information to myself or the City that we didn’t provide to you. I’m happy to be quoted directly in your pieces, and direct quotes are my preference to ensure accuracy”.
Grant continued “To be clear, I have not told you that you can’t get the information you seek. I’m just telling what the process is to get it. If your deadline is sooner than the process of receiving the documents would allow, I’m happy to do everything in my power to ensure any specific questions you have are answered”.
Asked to explain how this complies with the SPPA requirement “members of the public are entitled to reasonable access to the documents submitted”, Grant responded “You have access to the documents. The decision maker on which documents are required to go through FOI and which are not are the responsibility of the Clerk”.
“We are happy to help you in your reporting. Nobody has denied you any information. If you have specific questions, I’d be happy to answer them”, Grant wrote.
Both the Municipal Act and the Statutory Powers Procedure Act state hearings are open to the public. The City of Hamilton closed this meeting to the public, without specifying why.
The Municipal Act Section 357 Tax Appeal body met on April 27, there was no livestream. The City of Hamilton stated in the lead up to April 27 that it would – as required by law – stream the meeting on the City’s YouTube page.
Late in the afternoon on April 26, the City announced the meeting would not be streamed as it was being held in-person at City Hall the next morning. The City stated people could now register to watch the meeting via a closed stream, but they had to have registered prior to noon. The deadline passed prior to this announced.
TPR noted holding an in-person meeting is contrary to the provincial Stay-at-Home COVID order.
The City never streamed the meeting.
The Municipal Act Tax Appeals body decided upon over $40,000 in tax rebates. It is unknown how many they approved, why they approved them, or who the members of the Tax Appeals body are.
$18,000 of these tax rebates related to “gross or manifest error” by staff. “Gross or manifest error” is a technical term, no details were provided to explain.
In a chain dozens of emails long, TPR asked for information.
In response, Grant returned to his speaking points repeatedly. “We are happy to help you in your reporting. Nobody has denied you any information. If you have specific questions, I’d be happy to answer them”.
As a point of reference, this is what a Section 357 decision should look like in a commercial matter.
The City of Hamilton already delegates all Section 357 appeals involving intimate person matters to the Ontario Assessment Review Board. The ARB tax forgiveness decisions for the City of Hamilton are public and can be read in their entirety on CanLII.
The City of Hamilton does not public commercial tax rebate decisions, The City has not explained why it differs from the ARB in this regard.
After more than a week, we still don’t know anything more. As Grant is fond of writing to end his non-answer answers, “Is there other information you are looking for specifically?”