Frequently Asked Questions: Municipalities

On April 3, 2000, The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) came into effect for municipalities, planning and conservation districts, and community councils incorporated under The Northern Affairs Act.

FIPPA attempts to strike a balance between the public's right to know, the individual's right to privacy, and the need for Local Government to provide services and undertake their other functions effectively and efficiently. It should be applied in a common sense manner and should not unduly affect the day-to-day operations of municipalities.

The following questions and answers deal with issues which have been raised frequently by municipalities. If you would like to have other questions added to this document, please send your suggestions to your Municipal Services Officer.

For more information, consult the FIPPA Resource Manual.

Responsibility for FIPPA in the Municipality

1. Who in the municipality is responsible for FIPPA?
  • Under s. 80 of FIPPA, each municipal council must designate, by means of a by-law or resolution, a person or group of persons as the head of the 'local public body'. The head is responsible for all decisions and actions related to FIPPA which are taken by the municipality. The head is usually the reeve or council as a whole. The head may delegate responsibility to a senior staff position, called the Access and Privacy Officer in FIPPA 
  • The Access and Privacy Officer makes the final decisions of the municipality regarding disclosure of information under FIPPA. The Officer is also responsible for ensuring that the municipality manages personal information in accordance with the legislation.
  • Larger municipalities must also appoint an Access and Privacy Coordinator to handle the day-to-day administration of the legislation. The Coordinator would be responsible for: assisting members of the public to clearly identify the information they require and to complete a FIPPA application if necessary:
    • locating the requested records and preparing the information for the applicant
    • tracking the response process to ensure that the legislative timelines are met
    • estimating and collecting fees if necessary
  • In smaller municipalities, the whole council may be the Head and the CAO may be the Access and Privacy Officer as well as the Access and Privacy Coordinator.

The Municipal Act and FIPPA

2. How does FIPPA apply to municipalities?
  • The Municipal Act provides citizens with the right to access specific information held by municipalities (section 263). FIPPA takes this further by providing a broader, although still qualified, right to access municipal records. FIPPA also regulates the handling of personal information by Local Government bodies.
3. What records of municipalities are subject to FIPPA?
  • Under FIPPA, a record is defined very broadly as recorded information "in any form". The Act covers all written records in the custody or under the control of the municipality, including minutes, agendas, letters, memos, reports, and notes. It applies to information stored or maintained electronically, as well as to photographs, maps, plans and audio/visual recordings. Records in off-site storage, or transferred to an archives for preservation, are considered to be under the control of the municipality and may be accessible under FIPPA.
4. How do the provisions of The Municipal Act regarding access to information fit with FIPPA?
  • When someone asks to see any of the records identified in section 263 of The Municipal Act, these should be provided routinely and within a reasonable period of time (immediately whenever possible). While The Municipal Act also provides that other information may be made available at the discretion of Council, Council does not have the discretion to withhold information that should be disclosed under FIPPA.
  • The Access and Privacy Officer of the municipality should make the decisions about disclosure of information under FIPPA. Presenting each FIPPA request for access to information not covered under section 263 of The Municipal Act to Council will make it difficult to provide timely responses and may be difficult to justify in the event of a complaint to the Ombudsman.
5.  Does the municipality require a written access  application whenever an individual is requesting to view, or obtain copies of, information that is outside the scope of section 263 of  The Municipal Act?
  • No. In the interests of good client relations, the municipality will want to respond to requests for information in a timely and informal manner whenever it is possible to do so. For instance, a copy of report or correspondence that has gone to Council during a recent public meeting should be readily available once the photocopying fee has been paid. There should be no need for a written access application. In fact, effective January 11, 2011, the Access to Information application process does not apply to information that is available to the public free of charge or for purchase.
  • When it is clear that locating the desired information and determining whether it may be disclosed will take some time, the municipality should ask the person to complete a FIPPA application. This will give the municipality an opportunity to prepare an estimate of fees for search and preparation of the records and to formally use the exceptions in FIPPA to deny access if this is appropriate.
  • Communication with the applicant is recommended to ensure that he or she has not asked for more than is required to meet his/her needs. For instance, an applicant who requests access to all files regarding drainage construction projects in the municipality over the past ten years actually may be interested in projects only on the street where he/she resides. Similarly, when an applicant becomes aware that the amount of information which could be disclosed from a personnel competition file would be very minimal, he/she may reconsider the application.

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Council Records

6. How should letters from residents that become part of the council agenda packages be handled?
  • Given the public nature of council and committee meetings, an individual writing to council or the administration of a municipality should expect that the correspondence, including his/her personal information (name and address), might be disclosed at a council meeting. This also means that if a copy of the correspondence is requested by a third party, for instance the media, the correspondence including the personal information will be disclosed.
  • In order to alert the public to this procedure, the municipality should place notifications in its brochures, on its website, or in any publication that may be referred to when looking up contact information for the municipality or council.
  • Occasionally, municipalities may receive letters containing sensitive information, such as vacation plans, details regarding the security system of a residence, or information that could negatively impact on future sale of personal property. If it is not clear that the individual realized that the information would be made public, the municipality should contact the writer to explain the situation. If requested by the writer, and if it would not otherwise jeopardize the intent of the letter, the municipality could sever the sensitive information. Alternatively, the municipality could ask the writer to resubmit the correspondence without the sensitive information.
  • A letter that relates to a matter which would normally be discussed in-camera, under subsection 152(3)(b) of The Municipal Act, would be referred to the closed portion of the council meeting. In this case, the correspondence would not be distributed as part of the public agenda package.
7. Can correspondence from an individual that is referred to an in-camera meeting be disclosed?
  • Subsection 152(3) of The Municipal Act authorizes a council and its committees to close a meeting to the public if the matter to be discussed relates to municipal assistance, employee matters, preliminary policy, legal, by-law enforcement, or security matters, or a report of the Ombudsman.
  • Any motion arising from in-camera discussions must be voted upon in public. If a FIPPA application was received regarding a matter that had been dealt with in-camera, the municipality might disclose general information about the issue without releasing personal information. Caution is required in these cases. For instance, in the case of a FIPPA application for correspondence regarding a by-law enforcement complaint, the municipality would want to sever not only the personal information of the complainant, but also any information that could reveal his or her identity and potentially expose the complainant to harm. If the handwriting or use of language by the writer could identify the complainant, the municipality would have grounds to withhold the correspondence in its entirety (subsection 17(2)(c ) of FIPPA).
8. Can information related to accounts be released under FIPPA?
  • Once council has authorized the accounts, information regarding the vendor or individual to whom the municipality has written a cheque and the amount of the cheque may be disclosed. The municipal cheque register is the document that offers the best summary of this information.
  • All information in the cheque register is public, with exception of the names of social allowance recipients. Municipalities will typically disclose a cheque register without the names of social allowance recipients, just the amount of the payments.
  • While it is difficult to imagine the circumstances under which an individual would want to review the actual invoices in support of the accounts, these should also be disclosed upon request once the accounts are approved by Council. Personal information, such as residential addresses and phone numbers (if different from the business address), would not be disclosed.

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Records of Councillors and Employees

9. Are records of elected officials covered under FIPPA?

A record made by or for an elected official of a local public body relating to constituency matters is not accessible under FIPPA (subsection 4(f)). This exclusion is intended to cover:

  • records, such as private correspondence of an elected official, that were not sent or received by the official in his/her capacity as a council member, but which may have been maintained in his/her office for convenience
  • records relating to the election campaign of a council member (other than those records required to be submitted to the authority governing the election)
  • records relating to the private business activities of a council member.

Records dealing with the business of the municipality are governed by FIPPA, even if they are stored at a councillor's home.
10. If a FIPPA request is made for the salaries of all employees and councillors, does the information have to be released?
  • Subsection 2(1) of The Public Sector Compensation Disclosure Act requires that municipalities disclose the amount paid to any member of council or any employee whose total compensation exceeds $50,000. Compensation includes the total amount of all cash and non-cash salary or payments, allowances, bonuses and commissions.
  • Subsection 17(4)(e) of FIPPA states that disclosure of an employee's or elected official's job classification, salary range, benefits, employment responsibilities or travel expenses is not unreasonable.
  • Currently, most employee salaries and council indemnities are established by by-law. As by-laws are routinely available to the public, salary information for members of council and employees have been public for some time. For those municipalities that do not adopt by-laws specifying the salary rates of individual employees, FIPPA only requires that the salary range be made public, e.g. John Smith, Equipment Operator 1, Salary Range $12.45 at Step 1, $12.95 at Step 2, $13.45 at Step 3 and $13.95 at Step 4.
11. Does a municipality have to release information regarding travel expense claims or per diems for an employee or councillor when total compensation is less than $50,000?
  • Yes, under subsection 17(4)(e) of FIPPA, disclosing travel expenses or per diem rates for an elected official or an employee is not an unreasonable invasion of privacy. The records should be severed to ensure, for example, that the employee's credit card number or home address and telephone number is not made public.
12. Can personal information of employees, such as salary, benefits, or home addresses, be released to members of council?
  • Subsection 44(1)(f) of FIPPA states that personal information may be disclosed to an elected official if the information is necessary to carry out his/her responsibilities. For example, in a municipality with a small number of employees, council as a whole may need to receive information on individual employee salaries and benefits as part of the budget process. This does not mean that individual members of council are entitled to come into the office and request to see personal information, such as personnel files. Any such requests should be related to council responsibilities and authorized by council as a whole through resolution or policy.
  • In larger municipalities, budget decisions are typically made on the basis of summarized information, e.g. total amount of payroll, breakdown of costs for specific benefits, etc. Personal information in these circumstances is not attached to the financial data.
  • It is difficult to imagine a circumstance where council members would need to know the home address of an employee, though contact information for the CAO and other senior employees will be required in the case of a municipal emergency.

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Land Ownership, Assessment and Taxation Information

13. Should municipalities continue to make the assessment roll available for inspection?
  • Yes. Subsection 44(1)(e) of FIPPA permits disclosure of personal information when this is authorized by other legislation (in this case The Municipal Act).
  • The purpose of providing the assessment roll is to enable property owners to compare their assessments with those for similar or adjacent properties.
14. Should the municipality provide personal information from the assessment roll or other municipal records to bill collectors or private businesses who telephone or write to the municipality?
  • No. Subsection 44(1) of FIPPA sets out the conditions under which personal information may be disclosed. Personal information on the assessment roll is collected for purposes of taxation under provisions of The Municipal Assessment Act. It is not collected to provide a tracing service for organizations that may have private business with municipal taxpayers.
15. Are there situations where personal information from the assessment roll can be provided?
  • Yes. There are circumstances where disclosure of personal information (usually to other public bodies) for specific purposes is permitted. These are set out in subsection 44(1) of FIPPA. Some examples of the circumstances that permit disclosure are:
    • for law enforcement purposes or crime prevention;
    • for the purpose of determining the amount of or collecting fines, debts, or taxes;
    • for the purpose of enforcing a maintenance order under The Family Maintenance Act;
    • for the purpose of determining or verifying an individual's suitability or eligibility for a program, service or benefit;
    • for the purpose of contacting a relative or friend of an individual who is injured, incapacitated or ill.
16. What information can a municipality release regarding taxes, outstanding taxes, the size of lots, legal descriptions, assessed values, etc.
  • None of these items is considered personal information and therefore they may be disclosed. Section 341(1) of The Municipal Act states that a tax certificate must be issued upon request and payment of a fee. The tax certificate provides information regarding taxes payable for the year and any amount that has been paid, tax arrears owing, and whether the lands are assessed for farming purposes. Some municipalities may have a policy that tax information will only be released through issuance of a tax certificate. This practice need not change under FIPPA.  Other municipalities may have a practice of providing tax information over the phone, or at the counter. Again, this need not be changed under FIPPA, with the exception of providing property owner names (see the following question).
  • Subsection 42(2) of FIPPA states that the disclosure of personal information must be limited to the minimum amount necessary to accomplish the purpose for which it is disclosed. As property owner names are not germane to property tax information, names should not be disclosed.
17. Should a municipality sell or provide personal information from the assessment roll to businesses or organizations, such as marketers, Welcome Wagon, etc.?
  • No. Although section 263 of The Municipal Act provides a public right of access to the assessment roll, it does not give municipalities the authority to sell or give property owners' names and mailing addresses in bulk.
18. Can a municipality provide personal information from the assessment roll or other municipal records to 911 operators, ambulance service providers, firefighters, public works foremen, etc.
  • Yes. FIPPA authorizes release of personal information when the information is collected in order to perform a statutory duty or to operate an authorized program of the public body. As provision of emergency services and installation of utilities are among the responsibilities of a municipality, this information may be released to municipal or municipally-related departments.
19. Can a municipality produce and sell property  ownership/landowner maps containing personal information?
  • In 2000, the Rural Municipalities of Hanover and Armstrong applied to the Privacy Assessment Review Committee (PARC)*, established under section 77 of FIPPA, for advice regarding the sale to the general public of municipal maps containing the names of landowners and/or leaseholders. The PARC concluded that there is a public interest in making property ownership maps available for purchase by the public. It recommended that if the municipality is going to sell these maps to the public, property owners and lease holders should be advised of their right to request that their names not be published. This could be done by an enclosure with the tax notice, community newspaper advertising or public notice.

*Note: Section 77 of FIPPA was repealed effective January 1, 2011.

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Planning Records and Municipal Licenses

20. Can the records related to development applications and subdivision approvals dealt with by municipal planning boards and councils be released to anyone upon request?
  • Applications
    • Application files may contain statements and/or reports from provincial government departments, utility companies or other agencies to whom the application was referred; technical reports prepared by or for the applicant, including groundwater evaluation, soil suitability for private sewage disposal systems; specialty engineering or design reports and property appraisal reports. These records may be released in accordance with any policies of the municipality.
  • Minutes of Proceedings
    • If hearings of the authority with jurisdiction are open to the public, records of the meetings or hearings which include the decision of the board or council would be public.
21. Can a municipality disclose copies of development permits or development appeals, building permits and business licenses?
  • Municipalities can follow their regular practice, as established in policy, concerning this information.
  • Section 17(4)(g) of FIPPA states that disclosure of the personal information would not be unreasonable if the information relates to the granting of a license or permit.
  • In the spirit of releasing only as much information as necessary, the municipality would release the name of the permit or license holder, and the "nature of the permit or license". This would likely include all the information related to what the permit allows the permit holder to do (e.g. location of the work site, the kind of structure, its size, value of the project or the matter of a business license, the name and location of the business).  It would not include other personal information of the permit holder, such as a home phone number or home address if different than the location of the work site or business.
22. Can a municipality disclose building plans submitted in support of a building permit?
  • Section 26 of FIPPA states that where disclosure could reasonably be expected to harm or threaten the security of any property or system, including a building, information may be withheld. Clearly, a property owner should be given access to the plans of his/her own building, as well as anyone else (such as a contractor) whom the property owner has authorized to view them.
  • If the building plans do not provide for a security system, disclosure should not be problematic.

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Tendering Records and Contracts

23. Can a municipality show, or provide copies of, bidders lists for municipal projects to contractors, construction companies, agencies or other persons who ask for them?
  • Yes. A list of bidders for a municipal project, including the amount of the tenders, should be routinely available on request as part of an open tendering process. A FIPPA application should not be necessary.
24. If a municipality receives a FIPPA request for copies of contracts with consultants, engineers, or other contractors, should the records be disclosed?
  • Possibly. Copies of contracts may be disclosed after they have been awarded, on the premise that the public has the right to know who has been engaged to do the work for the municipality and how much is being paid for the work.
  • Some information in the contract or supporting documentation must be withheld under subsection 18(1) of FIPPA including proprietary information (such as trade secrets), confidential financial or labour relations information of the company, or any information which could harm the competitive position or negotiating position of the company. If the municipality believes that the information should be released, communication with the third party (the contractor) to obtain consent for disclosure or to review areas of concern regarding the possible release of information is required under subsection 33(1) of FIPPA.
  • If the municipality can demonstrate that disclosure would harm the economic interests or undermine the future negotiating position of the municipality, it may also withhold information regarding a contract under FIPPA subsection 28 (1).

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Privacy Protection

25. Can personal information regarding income assistance applicants or recipients be shared with council members?
  • No. Subsection 44(1)(f) of FIPPA states that personal information may be disclosed to an elected official if the information is necessary to carry out his/her responsibilities. Under The Employment and Income Assistance Act, an employee of the municipality, not council, is designated to determine or verify an individual's eligibility or suitability for income assistance. Therefore, council should not be involved in the evaluation and administration of municipal assistance to individuals.
  • It is council's role to consider general policies respecting the operation of the municipal assistance program. This can be done  by the provision of statistical and other analytical information, not the personal information of the recipients.
26. What about the signing of cheques for municipal assistance clients?
  • Subsection 134(1) of The Municipal Act states that cheques must be authorized by the head of council (or any person authorized by council) and a designated officer. These two officials have a responsibility to protect the financial interests of the municipality and FIPPA authorizes disclosure of information when necessary to carry out responsibilities of office. Both parties need to see all the information on the cheque to meet their fiduciary obligations, but they are required to keep confidential the names of individuals receiving municipal assistance.
27.  What is the municipality’s obligation to inform individuals about the collection of their personal information?
  • When personal information is collected directly from an individual (e.g. applications for building permits, business licenses, or culverts), subsection 37(2) of FIPPA requires that the municipality inform the individual of the purpose for which the information is collected, the legal authority, and contact information if the individual has an questions. If it would be expensive to replace forms that are currently in use by the municipality, a stamp maybe produced with the required information.

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28. Can fees be charged for handling FIPPA requests?
  • Yes. Section 82 of FIPPA and sections 4 to  9 of the Access and Privacy Regulation establish when fees may be charged and the amount of the fee.
  • Subsection 263(3) of The Municipal Act states that a municipality may by by-law set any fees it requires to be paid for access to information, as long as they don't exceed the fees provided for in the Access and Privacy Regulation.
29. What fees are chargeable for responding to an application for access for personal information of the applicant?
  • Subsection 5(2) of the Access and Privacy Regulation states that no fee is payable if the total copying fee for an applicant's personal information is less than $10.00. This applies only to the applicant's own personal information (e.g. a former employee requesting copies of information from his or her personnel file). It does not apply to non-personal information, such as copies of minutes, by-laws, reports, etc.
  • If the fee exceeds $10.00 and the applicant makes a request for a fee waiver, waiver of all fees may be considered under subsection 9(1)(b) of the Access and Privacy Regulation.
30. What fees may be charged for responding to an application for  access for other records?
  • Copying fees may be charged according to subsection 5(1) of the Access and Privacy Regulation or the municipal by-law.
  • An applicant must pay a search and preparation fee of $15.00 for each half-hour when the municipality estimates that search and preparation of the requested records will take more than two hours. The first two hours of the municipality's search and preparation time are without charge to the applicant. Search and preparation includes time spent finding the requested information and severing copies of the document(s) as necessary. The municipality cannot charge for time spent preparing the fee estimate, copying a record, or reviewing a record to determine which exceptions to access apply including time spent in discussion and decision-making (subsection 4(3)(a to e) Access and Privacy Regulation).
  • Under subsection 9(1) of the Access and Privacy Regulation, an applicant may request waiver of all or part of the fees. The municipality may grant a waiver if the fee would impose an unreasonable financial hardship on the applicant or if the record relates to a matter of public health, safety or the environment.
31. Should municipalities collect GST on FIPPA fees?
  • No.  Canada Customs and Revenue Agency does not require municipalities to collect GST on fees paid for handling FIPPA requests.

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