Respect the FOIPOP!

It took me well over the advertised 30 days and cost me $510 but last Friday I finally received the travel and expense data I had requested from the CBRM on 11 April 2019.

My exact request was travel and expense data for Mayor Cecil Clarke, his executive assistant Mark Bettens and former Economic Development Manager John Phalen from 1 November 2018 to 11 April 2019.

Municipal Clerk Deborah Campbell Ryan claims it took staff 17 hours to gather the requested information, which still baffles me (as noted elsewhere, I’ve appealed the charges to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner) because the information — in addition to being information any municipality that reimburses travel expenses should be able to retrieve readily — is just as vague in many aspects as the information posted by the mayor quarterly. Could some portion of that 17 hours not have been used to flesh out an entry like, “Toronto — Port Development Meetings?”

And rather than give me data I could work with, they gave me spreadsheets they’d converted to PDFs, meaning I had to convert them back myself (manually) to calculate totals. (I did try a conversion app but it messed up the columns.)

I cursed the CBRM roundly as I was entering the data into spreadsheets. (Although it was mild compared to the imprecations I called down upon their heads while writing my checks to pay their crazy fees. I’ve edited the sweary words out of the final story, though. I don’t work blue.)

But while I’m thinking about it, this might be a good time to explain why it is the CBRM charges fees and who is responsible for setting them. Here’s what the municipal clerk told me in an email:

The authority to charge fees for the locating, retrieving and producing the records for disclosure is contained in Section 471(2) of the MGA (see copy attached).  The “responsible officer”, MAY [emphasis mine] require an applicant to pay fees for the services outlined in that subsection.  Under the direction of the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), who is ultimately the responsible officer of the Municipality, it is the practice of CBRM to charge a fee for time beyond the first two hours spent locating and retrieving a record, and preparing same for release.   The fees are outlined in the Provincial FOIPOP Regulations (copy attached – see section 6).

The CBRM CAO has delegated responsibility for processing non-police FOIPOP applications to the Municipal Clerk.  When an application is received, a Memo is sent to the department that has custody of the records with a request for the records, but they are advised to first estimate the time it will take to produce same.  When the time estimate comes back to me, if it exceeds two hours, I discuss it with the department staff and then a fee estimate is issued. (The time clock then stops until we hear back from the applicant).  If the applicant agrees to pay the fee, one-half of the estimate is required before the records are produced. Once they are ready for release, the final time calculation is made and the applicant is contacted requesting the balance and the records will be released once received.

With both my recent FOIPOP requests to the CBRM, those estimates were off considerably, which meant the final fee was significantly higher than I’d been led to expect. If I’d been unable to come up with the difference, presumably the information I’d requested would still be sitting there on some department staffer’s computer, all wrapped up with nowhere to go.

As a friend put it, the CBRM clearly doesn’t budget adequately for responding to access to information requests. The CAO and Municipal Clerk apparently view FOIPOPs as expensive annoyances — time-consuming tasks that take your staff away from more important duties.

But what could be more important than ensuring the transparency and accountability of government? That’s the purpose of access to information requests, and were the CAO and Municipal Clerk to stop and think about this for 30 seconds they would see that charging $510 for information a citizen has every right to see (very little was redacted from the documents I was sent) is not contributing in any way to governmental transparency or accountability. Quite the opposite, in fact.