Redacted documents shared by the City of Nanaimo as a response to a freedom of information request. NEWS BULLETIN file photo

Redacted documents shared by the City of Nanaimo as a response to a freedom of information request. NEWS BULLETIN file photo

Column: Freedom of information requests might drop if city was more free with information

Communication hasn’t always been easy with the City of Nanaimo

A few weeks ago, staff with the City of Nanaimo issued a report to council stating that they are on track to receive more than 600 freedom of information requests this year, more than Vancouver or Surrey received last year.

The city’s report, which was discussed at a council meeting on April 23, mentions one media outlet having filed 36 requests alone. A fact that one councillor called “excessive” during that meeting.

Well since January, I’ve filed more than 36 freedom of information requests with the City of Nanaimo. Excessive? Sure, but also necessary.

What was not entirely explained during that April 23 meeting was that between October and February of this year, obtaining information, asking questions and receiving comments from city staff became almost impossible at times.

How difficult? Well, at one city open house about road access at the southdown waterfront that took place in November, staff told me they were ordered not to speak to media.

The report also doesn’t point out how easy it is to file an FOI request with the City of Nanaimo. The city has an online submission form that is by far and away the easiest online form to use that I’ve come across scanning other municipalities’ websites that allow users to submit FOI requests online. There are many other municipalities, Saanich and Lantzville being two of them, that still require individuals to submit FOI requests either by e-mail or by mail, a far more time-consuming process.

City of Nanaimo staffers, who have been very easy to deal with, by the way, spend 15-20 hours a day on FOI requests, though it is part of their job in the same way it’s part of mine to file the FOI requests.

In case you were wondering what came of the requests I’ve filed, which are on a range of topics, the vast majority of them were denied by the city. This includes everything from requesting a copy of the Goldner Report on workplace behaviour, to details of city-issued purchase card use by various senior staff members.

While most of what I’ve requested has been denied, some my work has paid off. I recently wrote a story regarding city issued purchase cards and airfare – what’s interesting about this is that back January, I FOI’d all personal expenditures by any city staff member who has a purchase card in 2017, but the city refused to provide me with that information.

Some other returned FOIs have generated some interesting bits of information. One revealed that two senior city employees (names redacted) were suspended or placed on leave last year and at least one senior manager (name redacted) filed a respectful workplace complaint against former chief administrative officer Tracy Samra in March 2017. Another FOI revealed the number of city staff members who took medical leave last year was 628.

Visit the city’s website and you will find a list of information that is required to be requested through a freedom of information request. That includes information about dog licences, lists of illegal suites, travel advances, financial audits, auditor’s reports and telephone bills.

If the city is concerned about the number of FOIs it’s receiving, perhaps it could just release more of the information, particularly financial information around personal expenses and purchase cards, itself. After all, it is taxpayers’ money and taxpayers have a right to know where their money is being spent.

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