Vancouver municipal government secrecy: What is being hidden? Why? And how did it come to this?

digital strategy city hallThe default practice under the relevant provincial act and municipal bylaw governing freedom of Information policy should be 30-day response times, and full disclosure in response to requests for information. Delays and secrecy are only permitted under very specific conditions, but our municipal government is falling far short. The public must ask why this is so.

What is being hidden? Who benefits from the secrecy? Are we witnessing deeply entrenched and systemic violations of both the spirit and the letter of the law? Will things only improve with whistleblowers from the inside, and public pressure from the outside? Is the problem regulatory capture? What is the connection to issues raised in the essay Post-Truth Vancouver? Is there any connection with reports suggesting that a huge amount of international money laundering is going on in Vancouver? Or public hearings and Council decisions on major developments that appear to have their outcomes decided even before the process is started? Or even the election outcomes?

Further below is a little narrative compiled from just a fraction of media coverage on Vancouver’s information practices of the past several days. If you are interested in a Nov. 19 meeting on this topic, send us an e-mail at Curious or prospective whistleblowers, please visit this informative link. Does our depiction of the civic system below offer an explanation of what is going on?

Vancouver civic system

For some context, recall that the current ruling party, Vision Vancouver, made this pledge in its 2008 election platform, the first time voters gave it the majority of votes on City Council: “increase accountability, transparency, and access to City Hall with new opportunities for engagement, and improved outreach and consultation on major issues.” So that is the statement of intention that voters put their faith in in 2008. And Mayor Robertson and his party repeated similar pledges in 2011, and again in 2014. That’s three elections and seven years that have passed, but things have gotten increasingly worse at City Hall. Accidental? Or intentional?

Next, read this for observations on the current situation as well as a review of the origins of Vancouver’s leadership in Freedom of Information policy in Vancouver, as well as the province of British Columbia, and even Canada.

Vancouver’s approach to access to information ‘appalling’: Marguerite Ford, former city alderwoman, led the fight decades ago for city to adopt bylaw (article by Jeff Lee, Vancouver Sun, 13-Nov-2015).

Excerpt: Marguerite Ford, a former city alderwoman who was awarded the Freedom of the City for her civic service, said Friday that Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Vision Vancouver administration has turned her idea of access to information upside down. “It is very hard to get any information out of City Hall and I think it is deliberate. They just don’t want you to know what is going on,” she said, adding that staff are being muzzled….The administration of the [provincial] act has since become bogged down under heavy bureaucracy and a culture of secrecy. On Oct. 22, almost 33 years to the day that Ford’s municipal bylaw was passed, Elizabeth Denham, the provincial information and privacy commissioner, issued a damning report highlighting serious violations of the B.C. act by provincial bureaucrats who “triple-delete” emails rather than furnish them to the public. Last week, Denham informed Vancouver she will conduct an audit of the city’s administration of the act. It is the first municipal audit by her office. When Robertson was re-elected last year with a reduced majority, he pledged to be more transparent...[i.e., that was 2014, his third time elected as mayor, with similar promises to 2008]


Mayor Robertson defends city hall’s access to information practices: Vancouver ranked among public bodies with highest number of complaints (by Mike Howell, Vancouver Courier, 10-Nov-2015)

Excerpts: The City of Vancouver said in a statement it was notified Nov. 2 that Denham’s office “selected [the city] to undergo a compliance review” related to the city’s compliance with access provisions under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. “The compliance review will begin with key staff interviews in late November to determine the project plan, identify the scope and estimate the timelines for the compliance review,” said the statement, noting the assessment is expected to begin in early 2016.

… Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr said Tuesday she learned about the privacy commissioner’s investigation through media reports and hasn’t been informed by city staff about the scope of the investigation. Carr said she receives regular complaints from the public about the city’s handling of information requests under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The complaints are specifically about the delays in getting a response from the city and the amount of redacted pages provided to the person who requested information.

“The public really wants to see much more openness and transparency,” said Carr, noting the mayor made a promise in his re-election bid to make city hall more accessible to people searching for information. “Last term, the access to staff by media, by the public and even councillors was limited. I was told as a councillor to not call a staff person up for information – that I had to go through a general manager.


Public desperately seeking information from city hall, VPD (by Mike Howell, Vancouver Courier, 13-Nov-2015)

Excerpts: The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner announced Tuesday that it will review the city’s access to information practices, which is kind of a big deal for us in the news biz who don’t get a great deal of satisfaction in response to requests for information.

So why Vancouver?

Well, it’s the biggest municipality in B.C. and correspondingly receives a large volume of requests. We’re talking 350 to 400 per year. And with all those requests, many of the folks seeking information weren’t happy with the response from the city and lodged complaints. 

In explaining why Vancouver was targeted, Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s office posted a statement on its website saying that in four of the last five years, the city ranked among public bodies with the highest number of complaints and access to information appeals


Conclusion: At stake are policies and day-to-day decisions at City Hall, affecting hundreds of billions of dollars, private profits, political careers, the quality of life of citizens, the future design of our city and neighbourhoods, and even human lives. Inertia appears to be preventing any improvement, and in fact, unknown forces seem to be driving our municipal government to become increasingly inaccessible and non-transparent. It will probably take action from within, and public pressure from without, to change the direction of this institution.


The legislation that governs Freedom of Information Requests in B.C. (FIPPA) is undergoing a provincial review. Written submissions to the Special Parliamentary Committee can be made until Friday, January 29, 2016. Additional details about this review can be found in our previous post: Rare chance to fix B.C.’s “Freedom of Information” (FOI) mess: Legislation review (Nov 4, 2015)

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