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City of Nanaimo staff busy with flurry of FOI requests

City clerk says municipality on track to receive 600 freedom of information requests in 2018
A redacted freedom of information request received from the City of Nanaimo earlier this year. NEWS BULLETIN photo

Citizens have more questions than ever about things that are happening in the City of Nanaimo.

Freedom of information requests are spiking in 2018, according to Sheila Gurrie, city clerk, who presented a report on the topic at a city council meeting Monday at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre.

With 182 FOI requests already in 2018, the city is on pace to receive 624 for the calendar year, nearly three times the 229 received in 2017. Gurrie’s report projected that the City of Nanaimo’s FOI request totals are on track to exceed 2017 totals for the City of Vancouver, 536 requests, and the City of Surrey, 530 requests, both much larger municipalities.

Gurrie said she has two and a half staff members spending 15-20 hours a day on FOI requests which is a strain on resources, especially in a municipal election year.

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Coun. Ian Thorpe thanked Gurrie and her staff for dealing with the current volume of requests “that have obviously spiked” in recent years.

“We can only guess at the reason for that and I won’t go into that,” he said.

Gurrie’s report shows that 41 per cent of requests have come from individuals so far in 2018 and 26 per cent have come from the media.

Coun. Sheryl Armstrong said 36 requests from one media outlet “seems to me to be excessive” and asked why media FOI requests have risen.

“I would only be able to speculate that it would be because Nanaimo’s newsworthy these days…” Gurrie replied. “From seeing the types of requests we are receiving, I think leaks are attributing a lot to the requests. I think the public and/or the media get tidbits of information and then they want to corroborate or verify.”

Coun. Bill Yoachim said he thinks a reason for all the FOI requests is that too much city business happens in closed meetings.

“We have to do less in camera and when we have to be in camera, we should have a snapshot and share what’s discussed…” Yoachim said. “The reality today is there’s no trust [from] the people and this process is fundamental in regaining trust.”

Gurrie said that fees for FOI requests are prescribed through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. It’s been unwritten city policy not to charge when the fee would be $50 or less, but Coun. Jerry Hong suggested that the city should charge for all requests, where applicable, to try to limit the FOIs being processed by city staff.

Coun. Gord Fuller said the $50 fees could help offset some of the city’s expenses on FOIs. He said the topic was very interesting.

“The other way of looking at this is that people are getting a hell of a lot more interest in the city than we used to,” he said. “That’s a good thing in a lot of ways.”

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About the Author: Greg Sakaki

I have been in the community newspaper business for two decades, all of those years with Black Press Media.
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