No easy answers: FOI requests ‘overwhelm’ City of White Rock

Residents question city's responses while mayor describes high volume of requests as 'distracting' to staff, council.

Residents Ross Buchanan (above with ‘resign’ sign) and Garry Wolgemuth speak out at a September rally following White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin’s controversial comments about Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy. Below

Residents Ross Buchanan (above with ‘resign’ sign) and Garry Wolgemuth speak out at a September rally following White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin’s controversial comments about Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy. Below

White Rock residents say they are getting little response from the city on Freedom of Information requests – some dating back more than a year – and are questioning why the process of accessing information is difficult.

According to city staff, White Rock received 102 FOI requests last year, and 21 so far in 2016.

Ross Buchanan is one of several residents to file a handful of FOI requests with the city – and subsequent review requests with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC (OIPC) – after receiving what he claims is incomplete or redacted information, as well as quotes for fees in exchange for information.

Buchanan’s requests have covered a number of issues in the city over the past two years, including correspondence about the then-proposed addition of chloramine to the water supply, documentation of the city’s research into joining the Greater Vancouver Water District and an “untampered expense file” for Mayor Wayne Baldwin for an 18-month period.

On the latter request, Buchanan was initially told it would cost $590 – the fee was then reduced by half, then again to $60 after Buchanan complained. (Under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, public bodies are required to provide three hours’ worth of information retrieval for free, but may charge for additional time.)

“It is incredulous that the city has claimed it would take five hours of manpower to either print or copy, at most, 18 pages of Wayne Baldwin’s monthly personal expenses,” Buchanan wrote in an appeal to the OIPC, four months after his initial request.

A spokesperson with the OIPC told Peace Arch News last week that the office can’t comment on their dealings with White Rock, citing privacy issues surrounding the outcome of complaints and requests for review.

In 2015, the OIPC received four requests for review and eight complaints regarding White Rock FOI requests; so far this year they have received three additional review requests. Comparatively, for the much larger City of Surrey last year, the office received six requests for review and three complaints; overall the city received 313 FOI requests. The office received no review requests or complaints for the City of Langley, which has a population closer to White Rock’s 20,000.

Baldwin told PAN Thursday that he’s aware of a few complaints from a “little group of people” who often copy him on emailed FOI requests, as well as subsequent appeals for additional information or waived fees.

He said the high volume of requests received by the city has left not only the designated FOI officer “definitely overwhelmed,” but also other staff and council.

“The volume of it has gone up considerably this past year, more than double,” Baldwin said. “Some of the FOI requests are huge in terms of staff time and the volume of paper that results.”

Baldwin described the process surrounding FOIs – noting that every city employee and council member relevant to a specific topic is asked to go through their emails to retrieve correspondence after a request is received – as one that “takes a lot of time.”

“I would prefer to have my city engineer working on city engineering projects as opposed to going through his emails,” Baldwin said. “He’s spending a significant amount of time doing that, same with the CAO and everybody else. It’s very distracting.”

While Baldwin didn’t attribute the increase in requests to anything in particular, he noted the majority of those filing requests are “just not happy” with the work the city is doing.

“It’s not a large group of people, probably less than a dozen… I guess you’d call them frequent flyers,” he said.

With several FOI requests submitted to the city over the past two years, Buchanan has also filed a handful of requests for review with the OIPC, including one regarding an inquiry into the costs and suppliers of a lunch provided to council and staff at a March 23, 2015 meeting. Baldwin, who was cc’d on the email, responded: “So, catering an event are you? Must be easier ways to get a quote. If you wanted the leftovers all you had to do was ask.”

Buchanan said that once the OIPC intervened on that request, he was provided with the details.

More recently, Buchanan received a response from the city on an FOI request from nearly a year prior, seeking the “exact wording of the resolution” passed at an in-camera meeting Dec. 15, 2014 that resulted in the cancellation of garbage pickup for multi-family and commercial properties.

At the time of his original request in March 2015, he was provided with several pages of completely redacted meeting minutes. Following a review by the OIPC, the city sent him a revised response dated March 11, 2016.

“At the time of this FOI request, the information was not releasable,” a letter from city clerk Tracey Arthur states. “The resolution has now been released by council at their March 7, 2016 closed meeting.”

The letter goes on to recite the resolution from the 2014 closed-door meeting, and in addition to outlining steps to notify the union and public about the impending changes, the motion states:

“Direct staff to develop a transition plan to discontinue the collection of Industrial, Commercial, Institutional (ICI) and multi-family (defined as a building with six (6) or more units) solid waste in 2015.”

Buchanan said he is skeptical that what he was provided was the actual motion that resulted in eliminating garbage pickup.

“The wording that (Arthur) sent to me in her email is wording directing staff to establish implementation and transition plans and to provide notice to the union and the public of a decision… that very clearly had already been made,” he said.

Resident Erika Johanson filed an FOI request last spring asking for plans, correspondence and reports relating to tree and vegetation removal on the Marine Drive hillside, and was subsequently told the information would cost $1,455 for 49 hours of work.

She filed a request for review with the OIPC, and although it took about six months for an investigator to be assigned, she said the office has been helpful in trying to get information from the city.

Among the details the investigator has uncovered are discussions that took place in May 2013 between the city and residents in the area who wanted to petition for a local area service plan involving the removal of vegetation from the hillside.

When the city later learned that the retaining wall needed to be repaired, Johanson said, the petition was abandoned.

Johanson is still working with the OIPC investigator on requests for further information on the original petition, correspondence between the city and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and requests for proposals relating to the retaining wall and vegetation removal and replacement.

“There is still no legitimate explanation for the total clear cut,” Johanson said. “Hopefully, my FOI requests will provide more insight – or more questions.”

Resident Garry Wolgemuth has submitted several FOI requests to the city over the past year, which have yielded few results, he said.

In January, he sought to receive the legal opinion cited by Baldwin that the mayor said confirmed statements he made in August 2015 about Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy. Wolgemuth was given six pages of fully redacted email correspondence from the city’s solicitor.

Wolgemuth has filed a request for review on the matter and is awaiting response from the OIPC.

Buchanan said the length of time it takes for an OIPC investigation is another troubling aspect for residents seeking access to information.

“I send in a request for a review to the OIPC and then decades later they might get around to it,” he said. “By then, the garbage service is stopped, the tower is built and the parkade is completed.”