The first time I encountered an intractable, idiotic bureaucracy, I was 13 years old, sitting in the City Manager’s office in my home town. Me with my long, messy hair, sweating in a tank top and old, stinky high top basketball shoes in perhaps the first professional office I ever entered. I watched her face go redder with every word.
She was nattering something about libel and slander. I’d been all over town telling anyone who would listen that she was an idiot. I was in this same office two weeks earlier without an appointment to demand some changes.
Our little town had one outdoor basketball hoop and in their wisdom, the parks department made the hoop eleven-feet-high — a foot too tall, because they didn’t want kids hanging on it.
I told her it was stupid. Why build a basketball hoop at all then? I asked her to fix it and of course she refused because… that’s just always the first answer. I told her my dad had tools and a ladder and I would let her know when I was done and I wouldn’t even send her a bill. That made her mad and she threatened me with a mischief charges and still refused to do anything.
There were only 2,500 people in my hometown, so when I repeated her threats and how stupid her decision was, it got back to her pretty quickly. That was my first angry threat of a slander suit.
Now it’s 30 years later and I’m still fighting with intractable, silly bureaucrats.
Last week, I walked into the Elections B.C. office. I wanted to look at the financial disclosure statements and nominators list for my MLA. This is the most basic bit of accountability afforded to voters in this province, to double-check that nominators are real people and actually live in the riding, (as well as to see who the MLA’s friends are.)
But before I could look at this information, Elections B.C. demanded to know who I was. I told them my name but that wasn’t enough. They demanded to know why I wanted to see them.
“Because I’m a voter and a citizen and it’s my right,” I said, but that wasn’t enough either.
They pushed until I told them I was a reporter. Then they nodded their heads. I still don’t know if that afforded me greater or reduced privilege which is why I didn’t state it in the first place.
I was ushered into a room with a woman on a telephone who was trying to discover if this whole business of engaged citizenry was even allowed. I cracked open the information package and pulled out my computer to take some notes.
“No,” she said. “You can’t take notes,” and threatened to remove the papers from my hand.
“I’m supposed to memorize this?”
No, she said, but if I wanted notes or copies, I had to fill out a form including my name, address, email, phone number, sign an undertaking about what uses I may make of the information and state a reason for taking it.
State a reason? For scrutinizing my own government, I need a reason?
“Personal interest,” I said.
Anyway, in the interest of protecting the personal information of a bunch of Liberal Muckymucks who signed their names and disclosed their addresses on this official form knowing full well it could and would and damn-well should be part of a nomination declaration and therefore public information, I gave the government all my personal information, creating another record.
How’s that for bureaucratic wisdom?
But it makes the City of Kelowna look sleek and lean and logical by comparison.
A few months ago, I was made aware of what I considered a pretty significant bit of City business handled entirely behind closed doors. Rather than appear in a public agenda package to be received for information, staff disclosed information to council through an internal ‘memorandum.’
I had never heard of councillors getting official memos from staff before and there’s some good reasons why perhaps it shouldn’t be done at all. I wondered what else was being passed to council through memorandums that skirt public disclosure. I had no reason to believe anything nefarious was going on, but like the Elections B.C. situation I just described, I wanted to test the system.
So I sent a Freedom of Information Request for all memos passed to council in this term, which isn’t that long ago. It’s a surprise quirk and perk in this province that the B.C. Government seems to have a decent idea of public disclosure. Look through every FOI request the province gets — they rarely charge for the service of telling you what your government is doing, especially if you are a journalist working in the public interest. They seem to understand the importance, at least officially.
Not the City of Kelowna. They sent me a fee estimate for $14,000 to find out what our city councillors are being told by staff. If you have no context for this, I will help you — that’s a ridiculous amount of money. Absolutely over the top.
But it gets better.
You and I might imagine my request would be as simple as searching ‘memorandum’ in the Intranet system for the City of Kelowna and finding council as recipients. But if it seems that simple, then you probably don’t work at the City of Kelowna.
Yes, it should be that simple, but apparently not everyone follows the rules on document management at the City of Kelowna and because they don’t, the city would require every top level director to search their own systems for memos to council. That could take days! Or, given the salaries at City Hall, a few hours each to reach the $14,000.
I proposed a few other simpler methods, but alas all paths are littered with insurmountable hoops, hurdles and red tape.
Fourteen. Thousand. Dollars.
But even if I could persuade city clerk Stephen Fleming that I shouldn’t be penalized because the City of Kelowna had a records management problem, clearly Fleming has been down this FOI road before. He knows he can make this as difficult as he wants.
He is no doubt aware the B.C. information and privacy commissioner, if I were to take a complaint there, would frown on me if I refused to negotiate, so he asked me to pare down my request to something specific. But that’s hardly the point of my exercise to ask for, what… SOME memos to council? No, I refused.
So did Fleming. And we're still not done.
He said he considered my request to be of a ‘commercial’ nature and therefore my fees would be higher. Now Stephen Fleming is a smart guy, so presumably he is well aware that the freedom of information commissioner has long ago established that while news outlets are of course ‘commercial’ in nature, requests from journalists are not.
My guess is this is just the latest manifestation of a corporate culture that despises public accountability but I’m even more suspicious now as to why the City doesn’t want you to know what it’s telling city councillors.
But this is my favourite part: Fleming suggested I ask one of the city councillors for the information.
How perverted and corrupted has this city become that it suggests I engage in politics to find out how the city operates with taxpayer money?
In both instances I sought to test basic principles our government pays lip service to, to see how it really works. Both failed miserably and now they have my attention.
I’m not sure where that leads me, but I'll tell you this: Two weeks after walking out of that City Manager’s office for the last time 30 years ago, I was playing basketball on a 10-foot hoop.
— Marshall Jones is the editor of iNFOnews.ca
- corrected at 3:11 p.m. May 6. The City's fee estimate was $14,000, not $10,000 as previously reported.