The City of Victoria has taken steps to limit the ability of a local media outlet from accessing municipal records, an unusual move that is drawing criticism from freedom-of-information experts.
On Aug. 7, the city applied to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia to cap the number of requests for information made by three individuals associated with Focus magazine, and anyone working on their behalf.
If granted, the magazine’s team would collectively be limited to one active request at a time, including the time to resolve any appeal. Given the average processing time for requests, magazine publisher David Broadland estimates the move would limit him to three or four requests per year.
For its part, the city claims requests for information by Focus are “repetitious,” “systemic” and place an unreasonable burden on the city’s limited resources.
It’s an argument media lawyer David Sutherland doesn’t swallow.
“Typically what takes significant time is the assessment of the potential for political damage from the information itself,” he said.
It’s an important issue Canadians ought to care more about, Sutherland added. Freedom of information legislation is a significant part of democracy and the rights of citizens, he said.
“We’re going to allow our leaders to lead us, but subject to defined rules that require they be open to scrutiny.”
The city’s actions, Sutherland said, essentially represent “a bureaucracy seeking to stop what is an appropriate level of scrutiny on the part of the public, and the public does that through journalists. Every member of the public is being denied access. It is not this particular magazine.”
The province’s former Information and Privacy Commissioner, David Flaherty, had a similar reaction to the development.
In an email to the News, he said it is “absolutely outrageous for the City of Victoria to bring a section 43 application (requesting permission to disregard access-to-information requests) against a legitimate news organization that is simply doing its job and thereby acting in the public interest.”
It’s also an extremely rare step for the city to take.
The B.C. Office of the Privacy Commissioner received approximately 40 applications of a similar nature by public bodies in the past decade. Of those, 16 cases were decided by an adjudicator.
Most of the adjudicated cases were filed by provincial bodies seeking to deny requests for information by past or present employees or clients. None sought to limit information to journalists.
In the City of Victoria’s letter of application, corporate administrator Rob Woodland outlines his reasoning.
Since 2009, contributors to Focus magazine have filed 49 requests for information, he wrote. Five requests are currently outstanding.
“These requests are part of a systemic and repetitious campaign intended to interfere with and discredit the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project,” he wrote, adding that some requests are overly broad in nature.
In total, the city has disclosed 2,000 pages of records to Focus. One recent request took city staff 34 hours to compile, city spokesperson Katie Josephson wrote in an email to the News.
“It’s important that everyone have timely access to records and information, and currently, requests from the individuals affiliated with this publication are exhausting resources available,” she wrote.
Broadland points out, however, that Focus has paid thousands of dollars in fees to acquire some of the city’s records. “Rather than adapting and adding resources, they are trying to stop (requests) from happening,” he said.
City council was informed of Woodland’s application after it was made.
Coun. Marianne Alto, who has pushed for more open government, said she struggled with the issue.
On the one hand, she is sympathetic with Woodland’s decision.
If requests for information come in waves, she said, it affects the city’s ability to respond in a timely way.
At the same time, she would support devoting more financial resources to “open government” initiatives, including the freedom-of-information process.
But this is just one priority among many important to this council, she qualified.
“We’re dealing with a finite number of resources.”