BC Government keeps important environmental records behind closed doors

MEDIA RELEASE

BC government keeps important environmental records behind closed doors

Environmental Law Centre and FIPA ask Information Commissioner to investigate

VANCOUVER, February 24, 2017 – In a report released today, the Environmental Law Centre (ELC), and the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), called out the BC government for failing to proactively disclose a wide range of important environmental records.

Over the past decade the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the Ombudsperson, the Forest Practices Board and the Auditor General have all specifically recommended that certain classes of documents should be disclosed proactively — but those recommendations have often been ignored.

For example, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations is still not posting contravention decisions to show how our forest practices laws are being broken — contrary to the recommendations of the Forest Practices Board. And the Ministry of Environment is not publishing copies of its compliance orders across most of the Province.

“So you can go to a website and promptly find every Vancouver restaurant that has broken a minor health regulation in the last year – but you can’t find those who have broken the rules on Crown land,” said FIPA Executive Director Vincent Gogolek.

Proactive disclosure is essential, because the enforcement of BC’s environmental regulations relies heavily on the public to raise issues and complaints. Without proactive disclosure, citizens and groups are forced to go through the Freedom of Information system to obtain the information necessary to launch a complaint – if they receive it at all.

For example, when the ELC tried to get copies of Government authorizations for liquid manure spraying above the Hullcar drinking water aquifer in 2015, Government officials said it might charge the ELC up to $600 for such orders.  And then release of the orders was unreasonably delayed – in contrast to other jurisdictions that promptly make such orders available.

The types of documents that the groups say should be proactively released include environmental orders, permits, contravention decisions, and policy manuals. Public disclosure of regulatory penalties is also important for the penalties to have a true deterrent effect and promote compliance.

“The public availability of such documents is absolutely necessary to keep government accountable and protect both our fragile ecosystems and the health of British Columbians,” said ELC Executive Director Calvin Sandborn.

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Contact:
Vincent Gogolek, Executive Director
BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association
vincent@fipa.bc.ca  | (o) 604-739-9788 | (c) 604-318-0031

Calvin Sandborn, Executive Director
Environmental Law Centre
csandbor@uvic.ca  250-472-5248

For a copy of the full submission asking the Information Commissioner to take action to ensure more government transparency, go to www.elc.uvic.ca .

Time for Action on BC FOI Reform

The BC Legislature is coming back on Monday July 25 for a special sitting to pass legislation to allow the City of Vancouver to bring in a vacancy tax.

However, there is also a pressing need for changes to the FOI law in this province.

Last week saw former Ministry of Transportation political staffer George Gretes plead guilty to obstructing the Information and Privacy Commissioner in her investigation of the ‘Triple Delete’ scandal. It is important to note that he was not charged with having deleted information, because that is not actually an offence under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

This highlights the need for both a legislated duty to document and for stiffer penalties for violations of the Act. These actions were recommended last year by Commissioner Elizabeth Denham and her predecessor, David Loukidelis. The Special Legislative Committee reviewing the Act recommended similar changes in May of this year.

We had Ipsos Canada ask people in this province what they thought about these issues, and this is what they found:

  • 96% of British Columbians believe it is important that government officials be legally required to keep accurate, complete records of what they do on the job.
  • 84% think government officials who interfere with access to information rights should face penalties.
  • 85% of respondents believe these reforms should be put into law before the next provincial election in 2017.

(Full poll questions and responses can be found here: https://fipa.bc.ca/poll/)

Vaughn Palmer’s column earlier this week catalogued the FOI failings of the BC government, but stated the government had the issue under “active study” the duty to document. Of course Commissioner Denham first recommended this action more than three years ago, so presumably they should be able to put together legislation to implement this amendment by now.

If the government doesn’t manage to get to deal with these vital issues during the July sitting, they should have a fall sitting to do it. There is no excuse for delaying action to restore public confidence in access to information.

Complaint to OIPC re BC Government posting individual FOI requests

On May 18, 2016, FIPA and the BC Civil Liberties Association filed a complaint with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of BC relating to their investigation  into “the disclosure of details of active freedom of information requests on the Open Information website.”

We point to a number of issues with the BC government’s seemingly out-of-the-blue announcement that it intends to begin posting summaries of active FOI requests on its Open Information website beginning this Friday, May 20.

Download the complaint letter.

Special Committee releases review of Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act

FIPA urges the BC government to quickly implement key recommendations

VANCOUVER, May 11, 2016 – The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) is pleased to see that the Special Committee’s Review of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) has issued strong recommendations in a number of key areas, calling for a duty to document and stronger penalties.

“The report comes at a time when there is a crisis of confidence in terms of freedom of information in this province,” said FIPA Executive Director Vincent Gogolek. “The BC government is under a pall of suspicion after the Triple Delete scandal, and it has to act quickly on the committee’s recommendations to lift that cloud.”

FIPA strongly supports the Committee’s recommendation of a legislative “duty to document” to ensure that government records are created and maintained. The culture of “oral government”, where officials choose not to record sensitive information or delete it as soon as possible, was the subject of a blistering report from the BC Information and Privacy Commissioner which focused on the recent Triple Delete scandal.

FIPA also supports the Committee’s recommendation that the Commissioner be given the power to impose penalties when government officials intentionally interfere with information rights. Seven provinces and territories, plus the Canadian government, already have legal penalties for type of activity.

FIPA is disappointed, however, that the penalties recommended by the Committee are significantly lower than recommended by the Commissioner – $10,000 rather than $50,000, and no jail time.

A recent Ipsos poll commissioned by FIPA as part of a supplementary submission to the Special Committee shows that the public is strongly in favour of these recommendations. The poll showed that 78% of British Columbians believe it is very important that government officials be legally required to keep accurate, complete records of what they do on the job and 84% think government officials who interfere with access to information rights should face penalties.

“We now have the Special Committee and the public telling the BC Government that the system needs fixing,” said Gogolek. “This government needs to legislate a duty to document and penalties for interfering with access rights.”

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For interviews with FIPA, please contact:

Lindsey Bertrand, Program Director
BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association
fipa@fipa.bc.ca | (o) 604-739-9788