COLUMN: Keep public safety info public

Information about Victoria's harbour airport should be in public domain

I was living in Halifax when the major daily newspaper there took the province to task over its refusal to publish food-inspection reports.

Diners had no way to find out whether their prospective restaurant was squeaky clean, or a chronic offender of health and safety practices.

At the time, I was studying journalism. In class, we examined the series of articles by the Chronicle Herald and their impact. For a wide-eyed student, they presented an inspiring demonstration of the power of media. The series was also a lesson about the tension between the public’s right to know and the desire by private businesses to be just that – private.

I graduated and moved away before the Nova Scotia government folded to public pressure in 2008. But the same issue followed me to Alberta, where I took my first job as a reporter for the Drayton Valley Western Review.

In my new province, the Edmonton Journal published a similar series, which also prompted the government to publish food-facility inspection reports.

Again, I caught the controversy, but missed the policy change by moving to Victoria, where I took a job with Black Press.

Here in B.C., inspection reports are published to the website of the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

Both the cautious and the curious are free to nose around. Through a few clicks, anyone can learn that in May, Denny’s Restaurant received a moderate hazard rating and instructions to thoroughly clean its whole kitchen. (The business has since complied, restoring its good rating.)

Also available are all the very minor violations discovered by inspectors at hundreds of food facilities during routine inspections. For instance, during its initial inspection, the new Marzano Pizza learned it needs to mount its paper towels behind the sink. This level of minutiae hardly makes for good reading, but for me the frequency and detail of the reports are comforting. I don’t look them up before eating out, but knowing the reports are available for public scrutiny gives me the confidence that I don’t need to.

All this is a long-winded way to introduce Victoria’s Harbour Airport.

At a recent City of Victoria council meeting, my jaw dropped when I heard overseers of the airport address the issue of transparency.

In a nutshell, Transport Canada “just doesn’t do that.”

Annual reports, outlining risk assessments, complaints and investigations aren’t published.

“Where would they go?’ asked a seemingly befuddled port manager.

“On your website,” shot back an obviously exasperated Coun. Pam Madoff.

The contentious exchange left me feeling embarrassed at my own oversight. Never had I pressed for the documents, even as public concern mounted over the impact of a new marina on the harbour airport.

During his presentation, the port manager assured city council that Transport Canada’s safety procedures are top-notch.

I say the proof is in the pudding.

The government already agrees it’s my right to know that Green Cuisine must dish its ice cream differently to avoid contamination. Surely, the stakes are higher when it comes to flying.

I’d like to know for myself, rather than trust the authorities, that my float plane has passed all its inspections with flying colours and that the runways are adequately wide and clear.

Now, I’m moving on in my career again. But this time, my new job will keep me in Victoria.

As the new talk show producer for C-FAX, I hope to help bring some hard questions about the airport to the airwaves.

It’s been a great five years with Black Press. Thanks to all my colleagues, fans and critics. I’ve learned a lot from all of you.

Roszan Holmen is a reporter with the Victoria News.

editor@vicnews.com