City of White Rock ordered to release utility-purchase info

City of White Rock ordered to release utility-purchase info

Judgment from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner supports residents’ right to civic records

The City of White Rock has been ordered to release information to a city resident on its decision in 2013 to establish a city water utility – and has been given until the end of next month to do so.

An order from Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, released to Freedom of Information applicant Ross Buchanan on April 12, says the city must “give the applicant access to all of the information it has withheld in the records by May 29.”

The order – issued by OIPC adjudicator Chelsea Lott following findings of her written inquiry – rejected city arguments that release of the information would violate local public body confidences, harm the financial and economic interests of the city and might harm third-party business interests.

In her decision, Lott found that “the city was not authorized or required to refuse access to the information it had withheld” on these grounds.

Lott also found that White Rock “did not have the statutory authority” to close a meeting in which it decided on the acquisition of the water utility from Epcor.

A purchase price for the utility has not been released to the public and the details of the 2015 purchase agreement with Epcor – still apparently under arbitration – have yet to be revealed.

The records in question are part of a Freedom of Information request that Buchanan had filed with the city in April 2015 seeking information on the city’s 2013 decision to stay with its existing water supply, rather than seeking access to water and water treatment through Metro Vancouver.

It’s one of many FOI requests that Buchanan, well known as a critic of the current administration, has been pursuing with the city over the last several years.

A request for comment on the findings of the inquiry from White Rock chief administrative officer Dan Bottrill had not been returned at Peace Arch News press time Thursday.

Buchanan told PAN that he views the decision as a vindication of his – and other council critics – pursuit of information through FOI channels.

“It validates why so many people in White Rock have to submit FOIs in an attempt to discover what the city is really up to with their tax dollars,” he said. “This is one example, but it could have been any one of dozens of similar situations where the ‘culture of secrecy’ prevails with the members of this council.

“The secret meetings and blocking access to information is systemic at the bunker on Buena Vista.”

Buchanan’s original FOI request had triggered subsequent release of information relating to the city’s decision to purchase the water utility from Epcor – particularly a corporate report on the acquisition of the utility discussed in the closed meeting of council on June 10, 2013 at which the decision to purchase took place.

However, the records of that meeting – which included a report on the business case for the purchase – have, to date, been released only in virtually totally redacted form to Buchanan.

That must change, according to Lott, who itemized the business-case information that had been withheld from Buchanan, including the 2005 price of the water utility when purchased by Epcor, an estimated value of the utility, the city’s borrowing limits for the purchase, the estimated legal and start-up costs, estimated debt servicing costs, and an estimated increase in water fees to city residents.

Lott further rejected city arguments that information withheld from Buchanan was subject to solicitor-client privilege, noting that some of the information had already been released by the city “as the result of another applicant’s FIPPA request.”

That other applicant, fellow council critic Dennis Lypka, told PAN he had had two separate city responses to a similar request for information on decisions leading to the Epcor purchase – made in November of 2015 – which had been markedly inconsistent in information released and sections redacted.

“They were giving me things they weren’t giving Ross,” he said.