Open government more theory than practice

A few weeks ago, the City of Victoria sought to limit the number of Freedom of Information requests journalists could make...

A few weeks ago, the City of Victoria sought to limit the number of Freedom of Information requests journalists at a local magazine could make to one at a time. According to Focus publisher David Broadland, the action was an attempt to prevent him from gathering evidence that the city had been actively misleading the public about crucial details of the Johnson Street Bridge replacement.

After public condemnation proved both swift and terrible, the city withdrew its application at the last minute. Last week, the magazine finally received a response. Unfortunately, the request revealed that the evidence which could either prove or disprove that the city lied in order to convince residents to vote “Yes” in the 2010 referendum had been destroyed.

Rather than the original notes that Focus requested, the minutes of the JSB Steering Committee were released after several conspicuous alterations. While the city’s response states that it is “common procedure to destroy … notes as soon as meeting minutes are finalized,” Broadland indicates the possibility of censorship, as procedure dictates that official minutes undergo private scrutiny before release.

Meanwhile, council was busy voting down a motion from Coun. Ben Isitt to begin proactively disclosing important documents related to the JSB project instead of waiting for reporters and exasperated citizens to file FOI requests.

By requiring constant disclosure of information related to projects with a price tag over $5 million, Isitt’s motion could have prevented a recurrence of last week’s fiasco by highlighting information gaps as they appear rather than revealing them years after any hope of recovering lost data has evaporated.

Isitt expressed concern over the “common procedure” of destroying potentially useful records. “We don’t know at the time that records are created, what particular information is needed, so I think the precautionary principal and the best practice would be to retain records unless there’s a compelling reason to destroy them.”

The city’s response leaves many questions unanswered. What happens to information that doesn’t make it into official minutes? What truth is edited out to protect the city’s interests in the face of public scrutiny? Time and again the city has reiterated its commitment to open government, but this week’s events have made it clear that, at the very least, this commitment doesn’t extend to the Johnson Street Bridge. M

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