The Town of Qualicum Beach has seen a dramatic spike in freedom of information (FOI) requests in the last 18 months, according to staff. The requests have taken a significant portion of staff time.
“It has been astronomical, is the word I might use. I have never seen anything like it in the 17 years I have been here,” said Heather Svensen, corporate administrator, at the town’s committee of the whole (COW) meeting on April 21.
“We are talking thousands and thousands of pages of FOIs in the last 18 months, so I definitely don’t want to underestimate that it has been an issue for sure with us juggling, shifting our priorities of our work because we have a deadline on those.”
Coun. Scott Harrison pointed out FOI requests can take precedence over day-to-day work, as they must be made priority and completed on a deadline.
“When people are submitting endless rounds of FOI requests, that actually damages the operations of the town as a whole,” he said. “I don’t think it is a huge number of people, I think it is a smaller group of people who are submitting these endless FOIs.”
He said town staff can bring requests to a judge and flag them as “frivolous,” but Svensen said staff have not done this.
She said when the town has a new communications contractor, she would like to provide public education on how to file more specific requests, to reduce staff time.
According to Daniel Sailland, chief administrative officer, the town was “dangerously close” to needing to hire a full-time employee to help with the volume of FOIs. This would cost the town between $75,000 and $115,000 per year.
“We just aren’t equipped for the volume that has come in,” he said.
Coun. Robert Filmer stated that members of the public are allowed to file FOI requests and said councillors have also filed their own requests.
“If they don’t think that council is being truthful and faithful in how we are doing our governance, that is up to them to see if we are being truthful or not,” he said.
Coun. Teunis Westbroek wondered if any of the documents obtained through FOI have shown council in the wrong or have resulted in the need to reverse or reconsider a decision.
“Having an FOI request almost implies that we have hidden something or haven’t done something correctly. I would never ask for an FOI — if I want to know something I just ask exactly for what you are looking for,” he said.
Sailland said none of the information has resulted in legal actions, but has all just been for the applicant’s information.