Freedom of information not so free in White Rock

The motion to add an application fee to freedom of information requests brings a province-wide argument to the City of White Rock

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By Claire Wilson

White Rock city council voted on April 25th to defeat a motion that would add a freedom of information request fee that, according to one community member, is targeted at him.

Garry Wolgemuth, a White Rock resident, opposes the introduction of the $10 fee and says it is a response to his repeated information access requests to the city.

“Most of the people out there, and especially anybody who’s got to deal with openness and democracy and all that, just thinks it’s a step backwards,” said Wolgemuth.

Taking the debate from provincial to local

The B.C. government amended the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act last year to allow the province, as well as municipalities, to charge a $10 application fee for requests. Provinces like Alberta have a $25 fee while Ontario, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island charge $5. Some Metro Vancouver communities have followed suit with the City of Surrey and City of Pitt Meadows applying the same $10 fee.

In 2021, Wolgemuth accounted for 19 of the 53 FOI requests submitted to the City of White Rock, or roughly 36 per cent of the total. His goal, he says, is to keep the city accountable.

A motion regarding FOI application fees was first presented at council’s March 28 meeting, during which Coun. Erika Johanson suggested council knew who the motion was in response to. She did not mention Wolgemuth by name.

Wolgemuth said he was singled out by the motion. “Because one of the councillors, Erika Johanson, said, ‘Well we all know who that was.’”

“This report gets an A for pettiness,” he said, referencing a city staff report on FOI requests.

Mayor Darryl Walker said the March 28 motion was not directed at an individual and doing so would be “absolutely offside.”

“I think we should be working hand in hand with Mr. Wolgemuth to keep ourselves accountable,” Walker said. “Although he’s not officially in the position, he does keep people accountable, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. So it’s unfortunate that others may not necessarily see it in the same light … but he has every right to his opinion. And he has every right to seek this information.”

The total number of FOI requests received by White Rock in 2021 was down from previous years. The city received 96 requests in 2017 and 78 in 2018, with the number of requests declining each year.

 

In a close vote, the motion to add an FOI fee was defeated at the April 25th council meeting. The vote was tied 3 to 3 which resulted in the motion getting defeated.

According to Stanley Tromp, an independent Vancouver journalist who specializes in freedom of information access laws, community residents are forgotten in debates about access to information.

“We forget it’s the average citizen who uses it also,” Tromp said. “And that needs to be highlighted much more because it’s been neglected, frankly. And I think if it was, the government might listen a little more.”

A new take on the addition of fees

The City of White Rock’s proposal would make the first FOI request from an individual in a calendar year free with any subsequent requests subject to the new fee.

Michael McEvoy, B.C. information and privacy commissioner, said he had not heard of a proposal similar to the White Rock motion with its one free request per year. He said he strongly opposes the addition of any application fees.

“People have, with certain exceptions, they have a right to that information,” he said. “And the whole point of that is to ensure that we are able in a democracy to hold our public bodies to account for their actions. And access to information is a very important part of that.”

Despite the inclusion of one free information request per year, Wolgemuth does not support the motion.

“What is this $10 fee gonna pay for, a couple of cappuccinos or what?” he said.

Councillors Johanson and Christopher Trevelyan voted against the motion to include application fees.

“We shouldn’t be charging for this information,” said Johanson. “That adds a layer of bureaucracy that we don’t need and can’t afford.”

According to the report on FOI requests written by city staff, an added application fee will “encourage FOI applicants to be clearer with their requests and treat the FOI process less casually.”

Walker said the fee would help cover the costs of processing the requests, a large number of them recurrent.

“Ten dollars is not a heck of a lot. If you get the first one for free and you’ve got two or three more that you want, you must have a reason for wanting them,” he said. “So I think it’s fair for people to expect at least some compensation to our community.

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