Would new rules discourage people from filing an FOI request at City Hall?
Over the last 2 1/2 years, CityCaucus.com has filed a series of freedom of information requests with the City of Vancouver. It's not a preferred method of gathering information, however, we've done so when the information we're seeking is not readily available through other channels. The process can be cumbersome and quite lengthy with some requests taking up to six months to generate a response. Often times the letter we get back simply states "we can't provide you with the information you are looking for."
Apparently all these FOIs (from bloggers and media alike) have really irked Vancouver's city manager Penny Ballem. She sent off a snarky letter to BC's Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) whereby she outlines council's serious concerns regarding current FOI practices.
Ironically, it actually took an FOI request by the Vancouver Sun's Chad Skelton to find out what Ballem told the FOI Commissioner. The city manager's submission was part of a broader review the OIPC was conducting regarding the practice of public bodies releasing FOI'd material to all media at the same time.
The organization at the centre of the Commissioner's review was BC Ferries. According to Skelton, the Commissioner's ruling states "that while simultaneous disclosure is not illegal, it undermines the spirit of the Act." I couldn't agree more with that viewpoint.
In the past, if you filed an FOI request with a public body, it was only sent to the originator. It was up to them whether they chose to release that information publicly. As you can well appreciate, this only stands to reason given the fact that many news outlets and bloggers shell out tens of thousands of dollars per year to process these requests.
I have no doubt that implementing a policy at Vancouver City Hall of releasing FOI documents to all media at the same time will result in fewer FOI requests. After all, why would the media spend their precious time and money submitting FOI requests if the information is handed to their competitor at the same time they receive it?
Public bodies such as Vancouver's Fire and Police Departments are increasingly using this tactic to help curtail the number of requests they receive each year. However, if you ask them, they'll tell you it's about making the public disclosure of documents more fair. Yeah right.
In her letter to the Commissioner dated March 11, 2011, Ballem outlines in no uncertain terms the concerns of the current Vision Vancouver administration:
The focus should be on ensuring the public's ability to access information for themselves rather than the more narrow mandate of ensuring exclusive access for groups such as media organizations, those with political interests or those with a specific vested interest in a topic.
It warms my heart to know that Mayor Gregor & Vision are so concerned about openness and transparency that they're fighting back against the big bad media and bloggers. Ballem goes on to state:
We are of the view that this argument is advanced by media employees (reporters, editorial assistants and other staff) and bloggers whose primary method of generating content is to file [FOI] requests. The practice sees a for profit enterprise making use of limited and costly public resources for its exclusive gain. At its most crass, they use the [Freedom of Information Act] to generate content which they have no interest in the nature or subject matter that the request generates. The purpose is simply to generate information that can then be processed into media content.
I have no doubt that Mayor Gregor signed off on Ballem's letter before it was forwarded to the Commissioner. Therefore, is there any wonder why Vancouver has earned the reputation as one of Canada's most secretive governments?
Here are 25 reasons why Mayor Gregor wants to change the rules when it comes to Freedom of Information requests. What follows are a few of the stories we've reported on which resulted from an FOI submission to Vancouver City Hall. Enjoy the read!
Plus here is one bonus story that we truly did stumble upon when we placed an FOI request. It's about Robertson's press secretary Kevin "Vancouver Kid" Quinlan who said in an email that CBC Early Edition's Rick Cluff made for an "easy" interview. Ouch!
- Post by Daniel. Follow us on Twitter @CityCaucus