Facing case backlog, B.C.’s information commissioner says office may need more money

Facing case backlog, B.C.’s information commissioner says office may need more money

Information and privacy commissioner calls on governments to give more information to public

Those seeking public documents from British Columbia government bodies are increasingly being told to wait – and wait again – for the information they seek.

That has led the province’s information and privacy commissioner to urge B.C.’s public bodies and governments to do better at providing public information to citizens without them having to ask. But as he calls on government to find ways to meet provincial law, commissioner Michael McEvoy is also considering whether he needs more resources to ensure his own office is dealing with cases in a timely manner.

“I think government can do a lot better job of proactively releasing information that doesn’t require people to be asking for,” McEvoy said in a recent interview with The News. Abbotsford mayor Henry Braun expressed a similar sentiment last month, suggesting that more information could be released proactively. The city, which has set money aside to digitize historic records, is on track to handle 600 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

The province’s FOI law applies to the provincial government, municipalities like Abbotsford, regional districts, public bodies like Fraser Health and WorkSafeBC, and Crown corporations like BC Hydro.

Those bodies have increasingly come to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) to ask for more time to meet those FOI requests.

Under the provincial FOI law, governmental organizations have 30 days to comply with FOI requests. In some cases, the body has another 30 days to meet the request, but if the organization wants even more time, they must request such an extension from the OIPC.

In 2017/18, the OIPC received 1,638 time-extension requests from public bodies. This year, it’s on pace to receive about 6,000 – a nearly four-fold increase.

McEvoy noted that the law stipulates that B.C.’s FOI law requires governments and public bodies to make certain categories of records available without a request.

“I think they can all be doing a lot better at not waiting for the access requests but getting records proactively released to the public and put on their website, for example, so you can access them easily.”

In a statement to The News, the province’s Ministry of Citizens’ Services said the B.C. government’s rising number of extensions are the result of an increasing number of requests. The statement from the ministry said the rate at which requests to the provincial government are processed on time has actually increased in recent years. The statement only relates to requests to the provincial government.

The ministry said the province has “expanded the types of records available proactively and continues to look at ways to make even more records available without having to make a FOI request. We are also exploring new technologies to make responding to FOI requests more efficient and secure, and to help with large-volume requests.”

But the OIPC has also found itself unable to meet legislated timelines to resolve disputes over what information should be made public. Last year, the office dealt with 1,400 cases in which it was asked to review redactions made by a public body before records were redacted. Most cases are resolved informally, but around 90 end up before an adjudicator. Although the law states that the office has 90 days to wrap up such cases, full inquiries are taking more than a year to complete now. Only about half are dealt with in 90 days, according to McEvoy.

The News learned of the delays after requesting a review of sweeping redactions of an audit commissioned by Fraser Health that deals with cancer treatment in B.C. Although an investigator told the Provincial Health Services Authority that it was his opinion the body must not refuse to release the audit, the PHSA continues to fight the full release of the documents. That could send the case to an inquiry.

The News was asked for consent to extend the timeline. It did so only after being told that the file would be closed if no consent was granted. The News requested the audit five months ago, after writing about Carol Young, a terminal cancer patient who struggled to access treatment in Abbotsford. She died in late October.

RELATED: Provincial health body refuses to release full findings of cancer triage system audit

RELATED: Carol Young, an artist who fought for timely cancer treatment in Abbotsford, dies before first solo show

“It does take too long and it’s not fair to you as the applicant or public bodies or the organization,” McEvoy said. “There is an old expression, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ and I believe that.”

The complexity of cases, and the size of requests given the use of email, has risen in recent decades and added to the time it takes to wrap up cases. “But also adding to time is a resource question,” McEvoy said.

He said his office has allocated more resources to inquiries and significantly boosted the number of adjudicators. McEvoy said he is hoping that will speed things up.

It’s still too early to say if those additions are helping, he said. If they aren’t, McEvoy said he may ask for more money from the legislative committee that sets his office’s budget.

“At the end of the day, it is the public’s information and the public has a right of access to it, subject to narrow limitations.”

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
tolsen@abbynews.com


@ty_olsen
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(File photo)
Crime report: Trespassers seen skulking about properties in Parksville, Qualicum Beach

Oceanside RCMP receive 272 complaints the week of April 25 to May 1

Richard Alm next to two of his pieces for June’s exhibit ‘Spatialist Nouveau: the rise of structured canvas in the art world’ at the McMillan Arts Centre. (submitted photo)
Business founder Jeff Ross stands outside his shop Gold Silver Guy in Qualicum Beach on May 10, 2021. (Mandy Moraes photo)
Qualicum Beach store owner finds shop in shambles after early morning robbery

RCMP investigating after door smashed, showcases shattered and inventory stolen

Artist Sarah Boileau in her home studio on Monday, May 10, 2021. Boileau’s work will be on display at the McMillan Arts Centre in Parksville through May 30. (Submitted photo)
Tagen Marshall of Parksville is looking to raise funds for a new specialized van. (Submitted photo)
WOLF: Parksville’s Tagen Marshall inspires others, aims to invest in himself

COLUMN: VIU honour student with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy seeks help achieving big dreams

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police “E” Division Headquarters, in Surrey, B.C., on Friday April 13, 2018. Indigenous leaders are calling for an investigation into the conduct of Mounties on Vancouver Island after two police shootings of members of a small First Nations community in three months. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Indigenous leaders call for clarity, investigation into RCMP after B.C. shooting

The RCMP declined to comment on the requests by Indigenous leaders

Colleen Price, Vancouver Island University’s bachelor of science in nursing program chairperson, says she is impressed with how students have persevered through the COVID-19 pandemic. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Next generation of B.C. nurses already showing resilience

University program head says learning had to be adjusted amidst pandemic

Two-year-old Kashius Weme rides at the Steve Smith Memorial Bike Park in Nanaimo on Tuesday, May 11. The youngster’s precocious bike-riding ability is already attracting cycle sponsors. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
2-year-old B.C. bike rider already attracting cycle sponsors

Nanaimo’s Kashius Weme has a knack for extreme cycle sports

Keith MacIntyre - BC Libertarian
Penticton’s Keith MacIntyre new leader of the B.C. Libertarian Party

The Penticton businessman was voted in by members of the party on May 8

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a 'person of interest' in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
Man sought in suspicious Kootenay death found in Lake Country

Philip Toner is a person of interest in the death of Brenda Ware

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP reported to 287 mental health calls between Jan. 1, 2021, and May 1. (Black Press files)
‘It’s not the police’s responsibility to deal with mental health calls’: Vernon RCMP

RCMP remind public to take care of mental health and well-being, while better solutions are sought

Thompson Rivers University campus is in Kamloops, B.C. (KTW file photo)
Thompson Rivers the 1st B.C. university to supply free menstrual products

The university will offer the products this September

Fraser Health is using ‘targeted’ vaccination clinics in high-risk areas of the Lower Mainland. (Fraser Health photo)
B.C.’s COVID-19 decrease continues, 515 new cases Tuesday

426 seriously ill people in hospital, up from 415 Monday

Most Read