Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Freedom of Information – in Municipalities? Hah!

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Miro Cernetig goes into the context of the Les case, and reveals the secretive culture of municipal halls. Or rather reports on the attempts of an SFU professor to dig into it, usually unsuccessfully

Here’s what the report says happened when they asked Port Coquitlam for the election documents: “… one surprising discovery was that Port Coquitlam had ‘inadvertently’ destroyed’ all 1999 campaign finance disclosure statements before the scheduled time.”

Another eight municipalities — some of them the province’s biggest — didn’t respond in the required time under the law: “Belcarra, Coquitlam, Harrison Hot Springs, Lions Bay, Pitt Meadows, Richmond, Surrey and Hope, did not respond within the 30-day time limit and as a result their responses were ‘deemed refusals in law’ according to the B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.”

Perhaps the most shocking finding of all, though, was the secretive culture that the professor and his graduate students Denisa Gavan-Koop and Stephanie Vieille encountered. Most of the municipalities seemed to want to limit access to those campaign financing details, which would tell you such things as what developers financed which politicians.

Municipal officials should be like civil servants – professional not political. They should work in the interests of the community not elected individuals. But the relationships inside many municipal halls are much closer than they should be. Any not a few senior municipal officials have clearly a very hazy notion of where their responsibilities are supposed to lie.

The author of the article thinks that the Freedom of Information Act should help. And I know I have done this too often but I have worked under the old blanket “Official Secrets Act” in the UK – which made it an imprisonable offence if I told you the price of a cup of tea in the staff canteen, for both of us – and the BC Freedom of Information Act. And in my experience, the public got a lot more from people working under the former than the latter.

Because the OSA was treated as something that could be dealt with on a discretionary basis. It was terrible legislation – a very brief bill rushed through at the start of World War 1. But that meant it could be administered very flexibly. Although I was hauled on the carpet over the risk of exposure of parking meter rates in the City of Westminster – but at least the lady from the SIS had a smile on her face when she did it. But the very detailed FOI means that there are all sorts of rules and regulations, and a whole office of people just “severing” stuff using special felt tip pens that defeated Xerox machines. We never had those in Whitehall.

No it is not the legislation – or the lack of a commissioner to dig stuff out. It is people who think they report to the Mayor and Councillors and not to the tax payers and voters.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2008 at 6:56 am

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