White Rock Mayor Darryl Walker said he and his council will be reviewing “how media releases are done” following a statement posted on the city website Thursday morning that took aim at Freedom of Information applicants.
The unattributed statement was issued by city staff without the knowledge or approval of himself or other council members, Walker told Peace Arch News Thursday afternoon.
The statement was amended shortly afterward – it was acknowledged the next day – with some of the more contentious words and passages removed.
Walker said prior to the change that while he agreed with some of the points made in the statement, he took issue with the “phraseology” and with comments critical of FOI applicants that “didn’t need to be said at all.”
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s not my position and we’re reviewing it.
“It would be better if myself and the (city’s) chief executive officer have the opportunity to see things before they go out.”
(City chief administrative officer Dan Bottrill confirmed Friday that he had reviewed and authorized the statement before it was released, although he had not authored it.)
The posting, described as a “statement from the city,” was published in response to the audit report issued Thursday morning by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C., which said the city “has serious issues” with how it manages FOI requests.
According to the report, White Rock is the second highest complained-about city the commission has dealt with over the last five years, and most of the concerns related to failure to meet legislated timelines and missing documentation.
While the city’s original online response said that the city plans to implement the recommendations of the report and that it has already made a number of improvements to procedures, it also said it was “disappointed that the scope of the Audit did not include a review of the specific content of access of information requests or the difficulties faced by White Rock related to vexatious, frivolous, or systematic requests.”
Walker said he shared the disappointment at the limited scope of the audit, but he rejected what he viewed as the city statement’s blanket criticism of FOI applicants.
As well, Walker said he rejected the further statement that “a small number of other individuals have also been making regular and coordinated FOI access requests and seem to be taking the matter to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C. regardless of the City’s response.”
“That didn’t need to be said,” Walker said, adding he believes in the right of residents to make FOI requests.
“I don’t think that we should make small of that. This is important information for these individuals.”
Walker added that council will continue to review FOI processes to make sure that information is made available and that city business is conducted in an open and transparent manner.
White Rock Coun. Erika Johanson told PAN after seeing the initial city statement that she had submitted five FOI requests to the city as a private citizen, most of them to get information on the decision to remove vegetation from the Marine Drive ‘hump’ in 2015.
She said she was also unhappy with the statement, which pointed out the city had sought relief from the OIPC due to “an individual who was abusing the FOI process.”
“I agree with a resident, who pointed it out to me, that this is insulting,” she said. “I take exception… that’s one individual, but everybody gets painted with the same brush.”
Johanson, a frequent council critic before her election, is no stranger to to OIPC decisions; early last year the office upheld her complaint that the city had breached her privacy in 2016 when then-mayor Wayne Baldwin named her as one of five individuals whose emails had been blocked by the city due to allegations of what she described as “cyber abuse and political opportunism.”
Coun. Scott Kristjanson – a fellow member of the Democracy Direct majority on the current council and and a frequent council critic before the election – emailed comments to PAN Friday morning.
“We were elected with a strong mandate and desire for more open government, and we embrace FOIs, and thank those who put in the effort to find out how their taxes are being spent and why,” he writes. “We owe them our gratitude. I think the city should apologize for how the city has insulted and bullied them in the past.”
Garry Wolgemuth and Dennis Lypka – two other council critics who had been singled out in the email blocking incident – also expressed outrage at the initial statement in separate letters to Walker and council.
“It was last council’s wish to cancel Question Period, never hold a town hall (meeting), leave 99 per cent of emails unanswered and never return phone calls… the arrogance was stunning,” Wolgemuth wrote Thursday, prior to learning that the posting had not been approved by council. “This council was elected on the promise of transparency, public engagement and respect.
“Name calling, (and) disrespectful categorizations of individuals (are) unacceptable. To state there is a conspiracy among individuals to request information strikes at the core of our Charter of Rights.”
Lypka – who has a long history of FOI applications to the city and requests for OIPC review of files that he believes have been unnecessarily delayed or have had incomplete responses – described the initial statement as “unrepentant.”
“White Rock has been to or at the brink of OIPC inquiry eight times regarding White Rock FOI Requests since August of 2016,” he wrote.
“(The city) has once again tried to avoid its responsibility and evade accountability for its actions by choosing to issue a ‘civic alert’ using carefully-contrived weasel words to spin doctor the message and try to off-load the blame for its woeful performance on to FOI Applicants and their alleged ‘frivolous or systematic’ requests.”
Johanson said she will be raising the way the statement was written at the next council meeting on Dec. 10.
“I think it would have been fair just to say that we accepted the recommendations and move on from there, rather than get in another dig at the people who have been trying to pry open the jaws of information in White Rock,” she said.