White Rock has been listed among the top 10 public bodies in B.C. – and one of only two cities, behind Vancouver – with the most Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) complaints and requests for review.
The reference was included in the annual report posted last year by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC).
Both White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin and longtime council critic Dennis Lypka say they’re not surprised at the city’s ranking, given the number of FOI requests the city receives – although both have different interpretations of what’s driving the statistic.
“I’m not surprised at all – it’s been an issue for us, as we’ve stated in the past,” Baldwin told Peace Arch News Thursday, adding that he believes many current FOI requests are politically-motivated “fishing expeditions.”
“It doesn’t surprise me – I expect it will have gone up like a rocket for 2017-18,” Lypka said, noting that he feels it a matter of civic responsibility to keep the city accountable on its actions and decisions, and to complain when responses to FOI requests are slow or incomplete.
In May 2016, city staff had been tasked with tabulating FOI requests received, and the following November – prior to the OIPC report last August – reported that the increasing number pushed the city to a create a temporary full-time staff position that summer.
At that time, Baldwin noted 90 out of 135 requests are from the same requesters – and that “four people are costing us $80,000 a year.”
Council critics have charged that the city has necessitated FOI requests – and requests for review – because of a lack information being made public.
According to the OIPC report – covering the period from April 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017 – 21 complaints and 10 requests for review were received regarding the City of White Rock, which ranked eighth on the list of public bodies with whom people have had FIPPA issues.
White Rock’s ranking is just after UBC, which had 11 complaints and 23 requests, and on a par with number nine, the Vancouver Police Department (which had 11 complaints and 20 requests).
The City of Vancouver ranked at number four with 24 complaints and 13 requests, behind the top three – B.C.’s finance ministry, ICBC, and the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
The report includes the caveat that “the number of requests for reviews and complaints against a public body does not necessarily indicate non-compliance, but may be reflective of its business model or quantity of personal information involved in its activities.”
And OIPC spokesperson Erin Beattie told PAN it is difficult to draw any conclusions about White Rock appearing on the list, as the statistical section of the report only offers quantitative information.
“We don’t go into detail about individual complaints or requests,” she noted.
Asked whether it was unusual for a city to appear in the top 10, Beattie suggested reviewing past annual reports. A search of reports for the past 10 years indicates White Rock is the only small city to be named as one of the top 10 public bodies on the number of complaints and requests for review.
Vancouver and Victoria were the only other cities named. While the OPIC’s way of reporting statistics has changed over that time, Vancouver – noted in the report as a city that had flaws in its freedom of information process and which has been implementing OIPC recommendations for improvement – has appeared on similar OIPC lists for most of those years over the last decade; Victoria made the top ten list in 2012-2013.
Baldwin, however, said White Rock’s inclusion is to be expected.
“There are a few people who work persistently to create FOI requests and the numbers pile up,” Baldwin said.
Asked if he felt the majority of requests had become – to use OIPC terminology for dismissing complaints – “frivolous and vexatious,” Baldwin said “it all depends on your point of view.”
“From the city’s point of view, they don’t seem to be contributing to the public good in any sense,” he added. “They seem to be requests for strange pieces of information that wouldn’t be what you’d normally expect to see at all.
“They’re on fishing expeditions. I suppose if you ask enough questions you might find something that’s an anomaly. From their point of view, this is their life’s work, this is what they do.”
In recent years, citizen FOI requests have led to release of information on severance or retirement pay packages for former city employees (including former city manager Peggy Clark), the shortage of water at Peace Arch Hospital as result of the Five Corners fire, and White Rock’s decision to purchase its water utility from Epcor (the OIPC order to release the information to resident Ross Buchanan was resisted by representatives of both White Rock and Metro Vancouver).
Lypka, a Surrey resident who said he remains a committed watchdog in the city where lived for 14 years, said he keeps track of FOI requests being made to the city regularly by around a dozen individuals – himself included – but was unaware that White Rock had received such a ranking.
He added that he knows the OIPC is currently continuing to receive complaints about White Rock’s handling of FOI requests, including some of his own, and is in the process of investigating several of them.
Lypka characterized the city’s attitude to FOI requests as “looking at FIPPA for ways to avoid disclosing information, rather than looking at the act to see how to make more information available,” and questioned the city’s 2016 hiring of lawyer Ken Overton as its FOI clerk.
“It seems to me highly unlikely that the city hired a lawyer…to ensure that the public received full access to all the public body records it is entitled to under FIPPA,” Lypka said
He added he believes that staff workload would be reduced if FOI requests were answered by FIPPA-mandated deadlines (“it would avoid double-handling of files”), and if the information subsequently released was published by the city.
“That’s something some more enlightened communities are doing…it saves people from duplicating FOI requests.”
But Lypka said he believes the biggest problem is that the city has developed a culture of secrecy that runs counter to FIPPA’s goal of promoting transparency.
“It all relates to an approach that includes eliminating question period at council meetings, never having any town hall meetings, no questions and answers at open houses – it shows a conscious opinion to keep the public as uninformed as possible.
“They (the city) will say that it’s the ‘frequent flyers’, it’s the same group of people (boosting the statistics),” Lypka said.
“But just because other people don’t choose to exercise their rights, doesn’t mean they aren’t going to benefit from the information released, or that those rights don’t exist.”