Nine months, a freedom of information request, a letter from the local mayor, media inquiries and a full investigation by B.C.’s privacy commissioner — this is what it took to get the province to release a series of documents that were finally deemed to be in the public interest this week.
If it seems like an awful lot of hassle for some soil tests and a nutrient management plan, well, you’d be right.
It shouldn’t be this hard.
But accessing information held by the provincial government isn’t straightforward. It’s not like a public library where things are out in the open for the public to simply browse through. You have to know what you’re looking for, where to request it, and be prepared to wait months, haggle over search fees, and in many cases, get a big fat no.
Privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham’s report ‘Clearly in the public interest: The disclosure of information related to water quality in Spallumcheen’ orders the province to release documents, but it also reveals a glimpse into what people go through when they file freedom of information requests.
Her report shows that the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria (which is working on behalf of Spallumcheen residents) first requested documents from the Ministry of Environment on Oct. 5, 2015. The law centre asked for documents relating to a series of authorizations from the Ministry of Environment for a local dairy farm to spread effluent above the aquifer. The ministry’s reply stated they would have to request the documents through the Freedom of Information process, due to the sensitive nature of the issue and the ‘privacy rights of everyone involved.’ The response also stated: ‘You have not identified the purpose of your research’ and as Denham later explains, that was a no-no.
“Applicants are not required to provide reasons for requesting records. FIPPA is for the most part blind to an applicant‘s motives for making a request. This ensures that the public body will process all requests fairly and not let any perceived motives delay the release of records,” she says.
On Oct. 9, 2015, the law centre submitted a formal access to information request. It was then slapped with a $150 fee. The law centre then narrowed its request in an effort to reduce or eliminate the fee. On Nov. 5, 2015, it specifically requested soil tests taken from the field of concern. ‘Woah, woah, woah’ went the government staffer in charge of handling the request.
“Forgive me here, but are you asking for additional information that was not included in your original FOI request? If so, you need to formally add this new information to your original request.”
In her review, Denham puts her critique of the handling of the request gently.
“There seems to have been some confusion on the part of the Ministry‘s Compliance Section Head regarding how to respond to an access to information request,” Denham says.
The thing is, the government has what’s called a ‘duty to assist’ when it comes to information requests. As Denham points out, there is typically a major imbalance of knowledge between the applicant and the government employee.
“On the one hand, you have civil servants who are knowledgeable about what types of records the government has and where those records would be located. On the other hand, you have an applicant who likely has little knowledge of government record-keeping practices, what types of records the government retains and where those records would commonly be stored. This type of imbalance can cause unnecessary delays in searching for records and in ultimately providing the applicant the records they are seeking.”
Section 6 of FIPPA aims to address those challenges. It requires public bodies to make every reasonable effort to assist applicants and to respond without delay to each applicant openly, accurately and completely. In this case, she says that didn’t happen. And that probably happens a lot more than it should.
In her report, Denham recommends the province ensure all staff are properly trained in how to respond to freedom of information requests, and I hope all government departments take note, not just the Ministry of Environment.
To many people, freedom of information requests might sound like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo — boring paperwork assigned to prying journalists and others who want the nitty-gritty details of government dealings. But the reality is, anyone can file a freedom of information request, and if you ever need to, remember, the government has a duty to assist you, not ignore you.
— Charlotte Helston is the Vernon reporter for iNFOnews.ca