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BC government withholds FOI responses from open info website

A Vancouver researcher said he was surprised to learn recently that the British Columbia government is withholding its responses to certain freedom of information requests from its open information website.

"I was surprised mine would not be put up there," said Mark Weiler, a research associate at Simon Fraser University whose interests include public education regarding FOI.

Weiler had requested records showing how an earlier request he had made had been handled. The government provided Weiler with a 22-page response, but in the Oct. 26, 2011 cover letter noted, "The Ministry has determined that these records will not be published on the BC Government's Open Information website."

The ministry started publishing its responses to FOI requests on the website in July. Margaret MacDiarmid, the minister of Labour, Citizens' Services and Open Government, became responsible for the system after a September cabinet shuffle.

Asked last week which FOI responses the government might not be posting to the open information website, she said, "I think the rule is they all are after 72 hours or more."

After hearing a description of Weiler's request, she said, "My understanding is they are posted, so there must be something I'm not getting about this." She offered that Weiler could contact her directly to discuss the matter.

A spokesperson for the ministry said there's a July policy document publicly available, and the most likely explanation was that Weiler's request was considered to contain personal information.

"It does contain some personal information . . . but those could have been redacted easily," Weiler said. While the package contained a few emails with his name on them, that's quite different from a health record or another document that would normally be considered personal, he said.

A document released today, in response to another Weiler request, shows there are other categories of records that are not being posted.

In an Aug. 9, 2011 email, Chad Hoskins, the manager for open information planning, wrote to colleagues who handle FOI requests, "Please note that based on a further risk assessment, requests for calendars for any government employee or official will be considered exempt from publication on the Open Information website."

An earlier Hoskins email had said ministerial assistant calendars "will be considered exempt from publication due to personal safety concerns."

The threshold for withholding calendars due to security concerns should be high and not covered with a blanket policy, said Weiler. "On what basis would they have for withholding calendars for time in the past?"

Other records that get withheld include ones including 'proprietary' information on a First Nation, requests made by or for other governments where the response includes that government's confidential information, and responses that include confidential business information.

Weiler said he supports the government publishing responses on its open information website after a 72-hour embargo as it allows the public to see how public bodies handle FOI requests.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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