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Government slow to respond to FOIs? No need to tell Bob Mackin

In a July 18, 2011 video posted on YouTube, Christy Clark spoke into a camera to announce her open government initiative.

"Open government is about giving people access to the information that they need to participate and to help us find solutions to the issues that affect us all. After all, it's taxpayers' money and it's taxpayers' information," Clark said.

"It's time to open government. To connect and communicate with the people that we all serve. Government belongs to the people and by working together we can engage British Columbians and get more of them involved in making our province an even better place."

Three years later, Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham's latest report finds Clark's administration is having a tough time meeting its goal and following the law. The government must respond to Freedom of Information requests in 30 business days, but its average response is 44 business days. Denham's findings are no surprise to regular requesters like yours truly.

The Ministry of Finance was among the 13 ministries that Denham gave below average marks in her report. Its overdue rate doubled from 13 business days to 26 last year.

Clark's attempt at damage control in the Quick Wins scandal included a March 14, 2013-written $70,000 cheque from the BC Liberal Party to the Comptroller General. The government was supposed to disclose a copy of it by May 2, 2013, according to its March 18, 2013 response. It missed the deadline during the provincial election campaign. An appeal to Denham's office prompted the government to cough up a copy of the cheque on May 9, 2013.

The Ministry of Health's overdue rate also doubled from 13 to 26 days, which pales in comparison to the wait for a copy of a briefing book compiled for ex-minister Margaret MacDiarmid. The Vancouver-Fairview Liberal MLA was appointed minister in the Sept. 5, 2012 cabinet shuffle. A request for the briefing book was filed the same day.

The due date was Oct. 19, 2012, but the government invoked an extension to Dec. 3. On Nov. 28, 2012, the government sought consent to delay the disclosure until Jan. 17, 2013 so it could consult with the Office of the Premier. I expressed opposition. A day later, the OIPC granted a 10-day extension to Dec. 17, 2012. That deadline came and went. So did the May 14, 2013 election, when MacDiarmid lost her seat to NDP rookie George Heyman. I finally received the documents on June 4, 2013.

For those keeping score at home, there were 172 business days between MacDiarmid's appointment as minister and her election defeat. It took the government 186 business days to send the records.

In her report, Denham singled out the Office of the Premier for its high percentage of "no responsive records" replies to FOI requesters.

"In the course of reviewing the reasons for this trend we discovered that, in some instances, individuals were deleting received and sent items in bulk from email accounts," Denham wrote. "These individuals stated that they did so because they believed the records to be transitory in nature."

She did not name the individuals or their titles.

On March 6, 2014, I asked Clark's communications aides Ben Chin and Sam Oliphant via email why the premier, the MLA for Westside-Kelowna, had stayed at a Kelowna hotel on Oct. 24, 2013. They didn't respond to that email or another one on March 12. So I requested their email headers for the in, out, draft and deleted boxes for specific time periods on the morning of March 6 and afternoon of March 12.

"Although a thorough search was conducted, no records were located in response to your request," said the May 21 response letter.

A supplemental request for the processing and handling records showed that Clark's deputy minister Kim Henderson, her executive administrator Keira Warren, directors Michelle Leamy and Sandy Wharf, and communications aide Shane Mills all responded negative when executive administrative coordinator Alisha Olson asked if they had any records.

There was no record of communication to or from either Chin or Oliphant about whether they had any records.

Denham also singled out the Ministry of Children and Family Development as the worst performer of all ministries. Its days overdue went from 36 to an average 87 in the space of a year.

Denham also considered a narrow sample of 25 files across the government to gauge whether it was gouging requesters in a bid to deter requests. "Our office's review did not find evidence that this was the case," she wrote.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development, however, was issuing inconsistent fee estimates after requests for Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre incident reports.

For the period of Jan. 1, 2012 to June 11, 2013, the government wanted payment of $308.70. A subsequent request for the same type of documents for June 12, 2013 to Oct. 29, 2013 returned a $240 fee estimate. That was $60 more than the $180 the government wanted for just 60-days of records spanning Sept. 1, 2013-Oct. 31, 2013.

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin, a regular contributor to The Tyee, has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since 1990. Find his Tyee articles here.

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