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FOULDS: Fees suggest freedom from information

The $10 FOI fee adds yet another opaque layer that has increasingly obscured government transparency year after year after year
Foulds column head

Ten bucks won’t get you as much today as it once did.

You might get four beers from a six pack. You’d need a few more loonies to bag a fast food meal deal. And the bill would only cover a portion of your admission to a movie, play or sporting event.

But that purple legal tender is enough to kickstart a freedom of information request at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District.

Less than a year ago, however, that FOI request was free of charge. Alas, we cannot blame inflation for suddenly giving a TNRD FOI request the cache of steak, rather than hamburger.

For that, we must credit a case of regional district monetary mimicry. Why? Because it can. And, apparently, only because the provincial government did it first.

It’s not the amount of the fee that is necessarily the point. Ten bucks is not a lot of money for a reporter or any citizen seeking information from government. It can add up, though, for organizations like ours that do file more than the occasional FOI request.

More damaging is the psychological barrier it creates, the $10 fee adding yet another opaque layer that has increasingly obscured government transparency year after year after year.

The B.C. NDP government implemented a $10 FOI fee last fall, despite the protestations of many groups, including the BC and Yukon Community Newsmedia Association, of which Kamloops This Week is a member.

There is a perverse irony in the regional district’s decision to implement a fee, a decision that came on the heels of the TNRD vowing to be more transparent in the wake of a spending scandal uncovered by this newspaper. That spending scandal documented hundreds of thousands of public dollars that were spent in inappropriate ways under former CAO Sukh Gill. KTW’s series on the spending led to wholesale changes in policy at the TNRD and resulted in a $500,000 forensic audit that confirmed what this newspaper had reported.

With newspapers having margins as thin as Alex Jones’ credibility, it is possible many news outlets, including ours, may not have been able to uncover all the information they have had they been confronted with multiple $10 fees when filing numerous FOI requests.

More troubling is how the fees were implemented by the provincial government and by the regional district.

Kamloops-South Thompson (BC Liberal) MLA Todd Stone lamented the lack of debate on the fee issue, which was quickly adopted in the legislature last November.

At the TNRD, the new $10 FOI fee was decided upon by three senior administrators — and the elected board apparently had no idea this decision had been made. Think about that: the 26 elected directors who decide on laws and policy in the regional district had no say in a significant policy change in that regional district.

One director, Area P’s Mel Rothenburger, did not know about the new fee until contacted by KTW months after the fee had been implemented.

(To his credit, Rothenburger attempted in July to have the $10 FOI fee removed, but the majority of the TNRD board voted against his proposal. Only five of the 24 elected directors at the meeting voted to axe the fee: Rothenburger, Kamloops councillors Dale Bass and Denis Walsh, Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden and Area E director Sally Watson.)

The provincial NDP government has argued its $10 fee — a reduction from the initially planned $25 charge — was enacted due to an overwhelming increase in FOI requests, most of which have come from the Opposition BC Liberals and from a small number of tenacious journalists. The fact that the NDP, while in Opposition, fed on FOI requests to uncover scandals in the BC Liberal governments of the day seems to have been edited out of the talking points handed to various NDP MLAs when they were trying to defend the new fee.

Bob Mackin, a Vancouver journalist who has uncovered plenty of information the public needs to know —including financial data relating to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and to the operation of BC Place Stadium — filed 397 FOI requests in a one year, more than all requests submitted by other reporters in that year. That free access to information (at least at the beginning of the process, as the subsequent costs to get that information can be high, as the cutline next to the adjacent image notes) would have cost Mackin $3,970 under the new fee system.

So, the provincial government’s defence is that it is overwhelmed by FOI requests and feels the $10 fee will weed out less serious inquires.

At the TNRD, there has hardly been an avalanche of FOI requests burying staffers up to their necks in paperwork. Through the first half of this year, the regional district has received 10 FOI requests. In all of 2021, it received 22 such requests — an average of fewer than two per month.

Access to information that should be public is a crucial part of the democratic process. Adding fees, regardless of how small that cost may be, only serves as another crack in the foundation of that process — and we all pay, one way or another.

Twitter: @ChrisJFoulds