Victoria council waffles on beefing up freedom-of-info processes

Councillors debate whether to spend to reduce FOI backlog, as part of move toward further transparency

The problem is well defined: information from the City of Victoria is not flowing as freely as it should.

The solution, however, is less than clear.

In September, the City of Victoria appealed to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commission to block a media outlet from making what it deemed too many requests for information. Victoria’s freedom-of-information co-ordinator, Rob Woodland, argued the department’s resources were too stretched to keep up.

The immediate issue has been resolved; the city repealed its request against Focus Magazine.

Still needed is a solution to the perception the city isn’t fulfilling its obligations to be transparent.

Coun. Marianne Alto called on the city to clear the backlog of requests by immediately adding at least one more staff member to respond to FOI requests. Her motion last week also called for a more long-term solution. She called for a review of the way the city responds to requests for information, with the purpose of improving efficiency.

Councillors Geoff Young and Ben Isitt opposed her motion.

“I think this is pointing in the wrong direction,” said Young. “It will end up (costing) a lot of money.”

Over the past few months, city council has learned of reports with significant spending implications through the media, he said. This creates the perception that critical information is not coming forward, and gives rise to more requests for information, Young added.

“This information has got to come out.”

Isitt argued for a more radical solution along similar lines.

“We kind of have to grab hold of the elephant in the room,” he said. “There is a lot of scrutiny from members of the media … looking at the city’s largest capital project, and that’s the bridge project.”

The city should proactively publish all non-confidential information relating to the bridge, which would allow the project’s watchdogs to inspect every scrap of information, he said.

Mayor Dean Fortin disagreed, saying that proactively disclosing documents will not reduce the number of FOI requests to the city.

“No matter how much information that you post, no one is going to believe that you did it all,” he said.

“We’re getting somewhere between 70 and 80 FOI requests already this year. It is probably more of a reflection of the age we’re in, (one) that demands more information … I think we need to put more resources (into) this.”

Council voted to table the motion until it receives more information from staff.

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