VICTORIA - The democratic rights of British Columbians are in jeopardy thanks to the provincial government's failure in recent years to respond to freedom of information requests on time, B.C.'s privacy commissioner says.
In a report released Wednesday, acting commissioner Drew McArthur said as many as one in four requests are not being answered within the time frame laid out in provincial legislation.
"I find it difficult to imagine a circumstance where government would tolerate its citizens breaking the law 25 per cent of the time," McArthur said in the report, calling the findings extraordinary and disappointing.
Nothing less than 100 per cent compliance with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act should be considered acceptable, he added.
Provincial legislation gives the government 30 business days to respond after receiving a request and lays out circumstances in which a 30-day extension may be sought.
McArthur said he is also concerned about a 36 per cent surge in the amount of time it takes to respond to overdue files, from 47 days three years ago to 62 days last year.
This is the fourth such review conducted by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which analyzed 194 random requests submitted over a two-year period between 2015 and 2017.
The report, titled "Timing is Everything," makes eight recommendations, including more resources for responding to access requests, closing overdue files and expanding the government's proactive disclosure program.
The report chronicles a steady increase in the number of requests, but McArthur said the government cannot be let off the hook simply because more people are exercising their rights.
Freedom of information requests are an important way for citizens and media to get information about what is happening in government, he said in an interview.
"If those requests aren't processed in a timely manner then people don't have access to that information and their democratic rights aren't being fulfilled."
Jinny Sims, B.C.'s minister of citizens' services, said she and her staff are considering the commissioner's recommendations as part of a broader review of privacy and access legislation.
"We are very focused to ensure that the people of British Columbia have a government that is open, transparent, accountable, and that they get information in a timely manner," she said.
Sims said she could not provide a timeline on when a progress report could be expected, citing the complexity of consulting with the more than 3,000 groups affected by the legislation.
The Liberal party did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
— By Geordon Omand in Vancouver, with files from Dirk Meissner.