Timing ironic for Victoria’s FOI request

Experts weigh in on city’s move to limit access to information

If the City of Victoria hoped to keep a low profile as it seeks to limit media access to information, it picked the wrong time of year.

Last week marked Right to Know Week in Canada, meaning cities across Canada held forums and summits to discuss the strength of freedom-of-information legislation at the federal, provincial and municipal level.

Smack in the middle of the week, news broke of Victoria’s application to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. Under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the city has requested permission to disregard some requests for information by a local magazine it believes is making repetitious and systemic requests that interfere with city operations.

It may be an unprecedented move in British Columbia, and the timing of the application served to shine a spotlight on the city’s actions. Experts and advocates speaking at a forum held in Victoria on Friday used the event to ground their discussion.

Lawyer Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, questioned the city’s argument that it can’t keep up with Focus magazine’s numerous requests for information due, in part, to a lack of resources.

“What is the analysis between the budget of the communications department and the budget (allocated to) Freedom of Information?” she asked.

David Flaherty, B.C.’s first Information and Privacy Commissioner, also criticized the city.

He likens Section 43 to the penalty box.

During his term as commissioner, Flaherty said, he put an anti-abortion lobby group in the penalty box after they filed huge requests for information to the health authority.

“But these are journalists,” he said, comparing his historical case to the one before the commissioner today. “That’s not your usual whacko applicant. I cannot believe that the City of Victoria has got itself in the situation where it is saying to a media organization, ‘You can (only make one request at a time).’”

But Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, warns it’s too early to make any firm conclusions.

“Maybe (the city) is just a thinned-skinned public body whose freedom-of-information process doesn’t work that well,” he said. “Maybe they’re tired of the negative coverage (by Focus).”

This is the more likely reasoning behind Victoria’s actions, but without seeing the nature of the requests filed by Focus, it’s hard to tell, Gogolek added.

Being a member of the media doesn’t necessarily preclude one of being guilty of what the city alleges, he said.

“That’s why we have a commissioner to see what the public body has to say and rule accordingly.”

The office of the Privacy Commissioner sent out a notice of hearing Sept. 27, but as yet no date for the hearing has been scheduled.

rholmen@vicnews.com