By Roy L Hales
After waiting for almost seven weeks, I just received notice that the waiting period for a freedom of information (FOI) request I made has been extended to 60 days. My first thought was what is the Strathcona Regional District (SRD) hiding? This arose from my ignorance. At the SRD Board meeting, I heard a different perspective on why FOI requests are so time consuming.
Time Wasted on FOI Requests
The SDR’s current policy is for staff to carry out 90% of their preparation work and then give the recipient a cost estimate.
“They choose to pay or not to pay and if they don’t, we wasted our time. We do that over and over again. It is really a large consumption of time,” complained Chief Administrative Officer David Leitch.
The Ministry of Municipalities told Mr Leitch that one recipient consumed $2 million worth of staff time during the course of a year.
“I was reading in the freedom of information and privacy act that when requests for information became vexatious – that is they ask a question, you give them the answer and then they come back and ask another question and they do that again and again and again … – you do not have to respond to that,” said Director Brenda Leigh.
“You are correct, we are allowed freedom of discretion, but that discretion does not count until we have consumed a great deal of time,” responded Leitch.
Legal Exemptions to FOI Requests
Contrary to what many believe, governments like the SRD are legally required to withhold certain types of information when responding to a FOI. For example, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act states, “The head of a public body must refuse to disclose personal information to an applicant if the disclosure would be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy.” The list of exemptions is extensive:
- Section 12 – Cabinet and local public body confidences
- Section 13 – Policy advice or recommendations
- Section 14 – Legal advice
- Section 15 – Disclosure harmful to law enforcement
- Section 16 – Disclosure harmful to intergovernmental relations or negotiations
- Section 17 – Disclosure harmful to the financial or economic interests of a public body
- Section 18 – Disclosure harmful to the conservation of heritage sites, etc.
- Section 19 – Disclosure harmful to individual or public safety
- Section 20 – Information that will be published or released within 60 days
- Section 21 – Disclosure harmful to business interests of a third party
- Section 22 – Disclosure harmful to personal privacy
- Section 22.1 – Disclosure of information relating to abortion services
Many querents are not aware of the amount of staff time their requests consume.
A friend of mine wanted to see how long the strained relationship between Quadra Island Director Jim Abram and Cortes Director Noba Anderson has persisted. She put in FOI request for their email exchanges during the past decade, but changed her mind after being informed the bill would be $4,000.
“Outrageous,” she told me.
Really? – Using the formula Mr Leitch cited, SRD staff probably expended $3,600 in time and associated expenses before they gave her that estimate.
I would have thought the expenses connected to my request for the Craig Peterson report were negligible: email me the pdf (my only previous experience with a FOI), or send it by surface mail.
Now I find it will be redacted. As I am probably looking for the very things the SRD is most likely to conceal (redact), this raises the possibility that I will be presented with a very large estimate for a document stripped of anything that I would find valuable.
My apologies to the SRD, but I do not have the budget and withdrew my request.
As I understand it, there are a number of FOIs out for this document. Hopefully some of them will carry through and pay the bill.
Pay The Estimate Up Front
Director Jim Abram suggests that people making FOI requests pay the estimated cost upfront.
“If the actual cost turns out to be more, they pay more. If the cost is less, they get a refund.”
This sounds fair to everyone concerned.
Top photo credit: Redactions by Wikileaks Grand Jury Testimony via Flickr (CC BY SA. 2.0 License)