Request to limit info is not the whole story, according to magazine
David Broadland, publisher of Focus magazine, suspects there may be a specific sensitivity at Victoria City Hall — and that he’s smacked it on the nose.
On the heels of B.C.’s “Right to Know Week,” the City of Victoria’s recent move to limit Focus’ freedom-of-information (FOI) requests to municipal records may be precedent setting — such a petition has never before been placed against a media outlet in B.C. — but it’s also a distraction from the real issue, according to Broadland. His hunch comes down to timing, and the nature of his silenced FOI request.
On Aug. 7, only four days after Broadland submitted an FOI that would relate to financial matters of the Johnson Street Bridge Project, the city applied to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to cap the number of requests for information made by Broadland, along with two other individuals associated with Focus and anyone working on their behalf. The application immediately froze all current FOI requests from those named, including Broadland’s latest, which asked for the notes taken by one city staff member during specific meetings — notes that, Broadland suspects, may have disclosed early estimates for the bridge project’s ballooned cost.
“It’s important that everyone has timely access to records and information, and currently requests from the individuals affiliated with Focus magazine are exhausting resources available,” says city spokesperson Katie Josephson, adding this has been an ongoing challenge with the magazine. “This is impacting the city’s ability to respond to all requests, including those that come from other individuals and media.”
The city’s petition — labeled as “Section 43” authorization from the privacy commissioner — is a provision of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that allows any public body to protect themselves from the “odd crank” who wants to file an FOI every day, says Broadland. The city applied for the exception stating that the magazine’s requests are “repetitious,” “systemic” and place an unreasonable burden on the city’s resources. In total, Josephson told media the city has disclosed 2,000 pages of records to Focus, with one recent request taking staff 34 hours to compile. Yet, as Broadland points out, single requests from other bodies, including the provincial government, commonly return over 5,000 pages of material to journalists.
“Everything created by a public servant is FOI-able, and the intent of the Act is full disclosure — this is why we have these laws,” says Broadland. “My guess is that the city knew full well how this would look, and they decided to take that on to protect something bigger.”
Broadland is well supported. IntegrityBC is calling on the city to withdraw its application, stating that: “The Johnson Street Bridge replacement is the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken by the city and at an estimated cost of $92.8 million. IntegrityBC believes it is entirely reasonable for a citizen or a media outlet to seek information on this project as it moves forward to construction and completion.”
“Access to Information laws were not introduced because people trusted government, but rather because people are naturally skeptical of government, and often with good reason,” says Dermod Travis, IntegrityBC executive director. “Going to the extraordinary lengths of making an application for a Section 43 authorization is an assault on the very spirit and intent of such law.”
Media lawyer David Sutherland is of a similar mind, and says this is an important issue Canadians ought to care more about, as freedom-of-information legislation is a significant part of democracy and the rights of citizens.
“We’re going to allow our leaders to lead us, but subject to defined rules that require they be open to scrutiny,” Sutherland told media. “Every member of the public is being denied access. It is not this particular magazine.”
With some Section 43 investigations taking six to eight months to complete, Broadland suspects the city’s attempt to “buy time” before being forced to release the information will have worked. The due date for receiving bids for construction of the new Johnson Street Bridge is slated for Oct. 18. His FOI may remain frozen until the new year.
“One of the main problems of this project all along is that it has not really engaged the public and it has not been an open process,” says Broadland. “There is a need for accountability here, and that’s what we’re after. Until that contract is signed, it’s the job of media to look as hard as possible at what’s going on.” M