The right to know

By Leslie Campbell, October 2012

Victoria City Hall wants to limit your access to information.

How ironic was it that during “Right to Know Week” (Sept 24-28) we learned how our own right to know—and thereby keep readers informed—was being severely curtailed? 

 In August, the City applied to the BC Office of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) under Section 43 to put restrictions on Focus publisher/writer David Broadland and myself (as well as Ross Crockford of JohnsonStreetBridge.org). Section 43 appears to be a little-used clause reserved for extreme cases of abuse of the provisions under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. As far as we can tell, it has never before been used against journalists. And until adjudicated by the OIPC, our Freedom of Information requests with the City of Victoria have been “frozen.” 

This is disturbing. And we can’t help wondering what triggered it. See David’s story in this edition for more on that front.

Our demands on the City have been quite modest, especially considering the issues and the interest. We submitted five FOIs to the City in 2012. Most, but not all, were around the Johnson Street Bridge replacement, which, as the most expensive project ever undertaken by the City deserves careful scrutiny, not just by City staff, but by media, councillors (who are sometimes in the dark it seems) and the general public who pay the bills.

We do not make FOI requests lightly. They cost us money we can little afford. They often take many months to be completed, and come to us with many paragraphs and pages redacted. But we believe the information we are seeking will serve the public interest by enabling more informed engagement and decision-making. The public’s right to know is, after all, a basic requirement of a well-functioning democracy. 

One of the most important tools at our disposal for investigative journalism is the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). Introduced in 1992, it recognizes that public bodies (government, universities, hospitals, etc) have an obligation to share information openly with citizens because it helps us hold those bodies accountable.

This Act has helped many journalists break important stories. In Focus, both Rob Wipond and David Broadland have relied on it to produce their reports. As you’ll read on page 8, Rob has earned professional recognition because of stories on eldercare and policing that depended in part on FOI requests. In this edition, his story on BC’s police chief associations shows how public bodies are circumventing access to information by setting themselves up as private entities not subject to FOI regulations—a truly ominous trend.

David has relied on FIPPA to dig behind the City’s substantial public relations machinery to find out what’s really going on with the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project. In April, for instance, he reported on how significant changes to the mechanical design of the bridge had been shown to councillors in a PowerPoint presentation without City staff actually telling councillors what they were looking at. Amongst other changes not explained, a feature of the new bridge that had been promised before the referendum was now gone.

His article last month, “City managers hide report for 20 months,” provides a good illustration of how an FOI can make a healthy difference to local governance. In March 2011, David filed for any seismic risk assessments done on City-owned buildings. Various delays by the City ensued. One stalling tactic included claiming these studies were going to be made public in 60 days, which meant they didn’t need to release them to David. After 60 days went by and no release took place, they used other stalling tactics. Sixteen months later, in August, after David filed a complaint with OIPC, the City produced the Reid Jones Christoffersen Report. It showed that many City properties needed extensive—and expensive—seismic retrofitting to be safe. Geoff Young, who was interviewed for David’s article, suggested that had council known in a timely fashion about the state and costs of retrofitting all of its buildings, it might have chosen a different strategy for the Johnson Street Bridge.

The release of the seismic report led councillors Lisa Helps and Marianne Alto to introduce a motion requiring all such third-party reports be provided to council within 30 days of receipt by staff. At a September 20 meeting, the motion was amended to 60 days, with some qualifications, including confidentiality, and passed. City staff, in recommending against the original motion, had proposed eight alternate strategies for increasing communication and accountability. Somewhat surprisingly, council also passed a motion to implement all of those practices.

These positive steps towards transparency are great news. They will result in a better-informed City council, who, as elected officials must steward the public interest. On her Facebook page, Helps wrote: “There seems to be a culture shift happening at City Hall and I’m thrilled to be part of the process.” And so are we: Without David’s investigations through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, none of this would have happened.

Naturally we are fighting the City’s application to limit our use of FOI. There are important principles at stake—and consequences. In an era of multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects, it is especially important to nurture an engaged, informed citizenry.

This month’s edition has other stories that highlight our right to know. Alan Cassel’s feature on the increasingly controversial flu vaccine program and Aaren Madden’s interview with federal marine mammal toxicologist Peter Ross illustrate, in different ways, how a healthy democracy depends on us all keeping well informed.

Leslie Campbell is Focus’ founder and editor. News flash: council videos for Victoria and other local municipalities are now available courtesy of citizen Jason Ross on Youtube—search “modern democracy.” The people are doing it for themselves!