The B.C. provincial legislation that regulates Freedom of Information (FOI) requests is currently under review. FOI requests are a crucial tool that can help increase the transparency of governments. “FOIs” are an indispensable part of any system that hopes to be a democracy accountable to the people.
With “triple deleting” and failing grades for provincial FOI practices, trickling down to serious problems at the municipal level (in Vancouver, for example) we have a mess in British Columbia. Media have reported extensively on this mess. But now the public has a rare chance to get involved.
PUBLIC HEARINGS, PUBLIC INPUT
A public hearing will be held in Vancouver on Monday, November 9th, from 9 am to 5 pm. Individuals and delegations can make request to address the MLAs on the Special Committee. Written comments can be submitted until January 29, 2016. (A public hearing is also set for Victoria, Nov. 18. See below.)
BACKGROUND – FOI
The FOI rules set by the BC Legislature apply to provincial ministries, local municipalities (City of Vancouver), and regional bodies (Metro Vancouver). Professional bodies such as the AIBC (Architectural Institute of British Columbia) and the Real Estate Council of British Columbia are also subject to FOIs. The definition of a “local government” is wide ranging, and it not only includes the local Police Board, Library Board, Park Board and but also government appointed committees (Urban Design Panel, Heritage Commission, etc.). Filing a Freedom of Information request is a fairly simple exercise; we’ve provided a primer on making FOIs requests in a previous post.
One of the key issues with the current state of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) in B.C. is the lack of respect for and lax enforcement of legislation. The weak powers by the government watchdog agency (OIPC / Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner) is another problem. As well, in the case of certain municipalities like the City of Vancouver, there are significant failures, with lengthy response times, heavily redacted records, fees, and the outright refusal to release records. We have also learnt from whistleblowers that government employees have deliberately destroyed records. There is also the rampant practice of the denial of the existence of records. We know of specific instances where we know the requested records do exist, but FOI staff claim that no responsive records have been found. We know of examples where records turned up at a later date (but the same records could not be located for a FOI request). It’s clear that much could be done to improve FOI access in B.C. Look at that list and imagine the possible implications for the integrity of our provincial and municipal governments.
IMPROVEMENTS – SOME THOUGHTS …
How could the FIPPA legislation be improved? The legislation could be changed to reduce the response time to 14 calendar days from the current 30 business day limit. Abolish or strictly limit the exceptions that allow response time extensions for FOI requests. Fees for requests could be waived. Response times for OIPC could be significantly improved. Meaningful enforcement and penalties for non-compliance of FIPPA are needed. In terms of general attitude at governments, leaders need to strongly convey to public servants that the spirit of FIPPA needs to be respected. Local governments that have systemic problems with FOIs should be subject to audits, and clear penalties and other actions should be put in place for repeat offenders. Hiding important information from the public should not be tolerated (whether this is about high-profile cases like the Highway of Tears, or data on the viaducts, or simple requests about procurement).
OPPORTUNITY IN VICTORIA TOO
Residents of Victoria will have a chance to address the Special Committee on November 18th, 2015.
ABOUT THE SPECIAL COMMITTEE AND TIPS FOR CITIZENS
The Special Committee is made of MLAs Don McRae (Chair), Doug Routley (Deputy Chair), Kathy Corrigan, David Eby, Eric Foster, Sam Sullivan, Jackie Tegart and John Yap. Speakers will have up to 20 minutes for comments and 10 minutes to answer questions from the Committee. Further details can be found on the webpage for the Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
If you have questions or would like some input to help prepare your oral or written submission, please send us an e-mail at citizenYVR@gmail.com, and we’ll see if we can be of service.
Tips on navigating through the FOI process are also available on the website of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIFA): fipa.bc.ca
For further info and to get involved online, please also try the #GreyestCity hashtag on Twitter, which you can search to see issues with FOI in BC:
You could also add #GreyestCity to your tweets… and share your thoughts and experiences.