In 2014 and 2015, grassroots advocates in Gibsons BC made Freedom of Information (FOI) requests for public documents to the Town of Gibsons. They spent $6,646.56 and received 3900 pages of documentation, much of which was useless.
If there is a manual on how municipalities can frustrate FOI-requests from citizens, the Town of Gibsons may have written it.
14 Easy Steps to Non-Disclosure.
1.) Start off by telling the applicant that you need clarification about their requests. Drag this conversation out as long as possible. Statutory deadlines don’t start until you and the applicant agree on the exact wording of the request.
2.) Try to convince the applicant to combine FOI requests. When they ask you to process their requests individually as written, engage them in a long drawn out conversation insisting they do it your way. If the applicant protests, tell them that YOU are the head of the public body and they have to do it your way. They likely won’t know their rights, and finding out will require time and effort on their part.
3.) Always provide documents too late. Instead of releasing information within 30 days, push deadlines back four or five months if you can. Up to thirteen months has been successfully done. And never release documents before an election. If that means you are going to be past statutory deadlines, so be it.
4.) If citizens request to view documents at Town Hall, claim that Town staff are very busy and do not have time in the (undetermined) foreseeable future to oversee the viewing of public documents. While citizens are denied access to information, important decisions can be made without interference.
5.) Citizens and grassroots organizations usually have limited funds. Always ignore fee waiver requests, even if the records being requested are in the public interest and should be free of charge.
6.) If the request comes from groups whose official goal is to inform the public, pretend you don’t know this. If they start making too many Freedom of Information requests about subjects you don’t want them to know about, charge them a lot of money. Start off at from $0.8 per page, you can go to $2.29 or even $4.01 per page.
7.) Make sure they pay before they see what they will actually receive. Complaints with the OICP about FOI fees take six months and cannot be processed at the same time as complaints about missing or incomplete documents. In the meantime, the high cost works well to discourage further FOI-requests.
8.) Simply leave out any documents you don’t want to provide. The citizen(s) will be none the wiser. If they complain, wait for months and then only provide documents they obviously knew about and asked for. Do not volunteer information.
9.) If the request is for records of a number of years, leave one or two years out and say the Town lost the documents.
10.) Never include email attachments. Even when they are specifically requested.
11.) Redact anything they may know exists.
- “Legal Advice” is a very useful excuse to black out whole pages, or whole documents. Never give a summary of the document or the legal reason for redaction.
- You can also black out pages with no reason given. In case of a complaint to the OICP, it buys time. Elections may then be over, or staff has time to clean up certain records.
- “Not responsive” is another good answer when asked for records. For example, a request for all emails of the mayor plus minutes and notes of meetings he attended as mayor during a certain period can be “not responsive”. Two redacted emails without information suffice.
12.) Make sure at least 30 per cent of the documents released are irrelevant to the request and/or useless:
- Unrelated: include 12-page commercial brochures, 18-pages booklets about property values in another province, flyers about bicycles in Africa. Use your imagination.
- Empty, or no information. I.e. pages with just an email signature
- Double documents. You can try 3-4 copies, too.
- Random pages: No indication where they belong
- Transient emails: “Did you hear there was a computer virus?”, “Great to see you on the ferry yesterday! Hadn’t seen you for awhile.”
- Documents received by the Town from citizens about mundane and unrelated subjects.
13.) Do not put the documents in chronological order, for two reasons:
- The citizen(s) become discouraged when confronted with 1600 pages
- It is not clear which page, map or table belongs to which document, lessening the value of the information.
14.) Tamper with page numbers. Manually change them or black them out. I.e. Make switches from page 1380 to 1330. This will render the “Record of Information Severed or Documents Withheld” useless. The Record is legally required and lists the reasons why certain pages are blacked out.