FOI request to city takes five months, reveals little

12th and Cambie


A few weeks ago, I sent a tweet out into the Twittersphere that got some attention.

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If you can believe it, I was trending on Twitter for a few hours in early September, according to Trendsmap Vancouver.

Which, of course, means all that notoriety has put me in line for a significant raise and Bill Maher has called to get me on his show.

Oh, how I joke.

Let’s get to the tweet…

This is what I sent out: “Sure glad I waited 5 months for that #FOI from @cityofvancouver #publicloses #vanpoli.”

Genius, right?

Not exactly.

Truth be told, it was really the photograph accompanying the tweet, which was taken by colleague Michael Kissinger, that resulted in the whopping 5,800 views of my little Twitter bomb.

The photograph was a simple shot of my hands holding four redacted pages I received from the City of Vancouver. I posed with four pages for effect but should have been more creative and shown you all 48 fully or partially redacted pages.

Yes, 48 pages out of a possible 68.

Crazy, eh?

Many of you were curious about the topic of my request.

Now I can tell you because I wrote a story that is posted here and will appear on the front page of Wednesday’s paper.

For the better part of a year, I’ve wanted to write a story about the Marguerite Ford Apartments at 215 West Second Ave. This is one of the 14 social housing buildings built or under development by the province, the city and the Streetohome Foundation.

I wanted to pursue the story after hearing complaints from neighbours and regularly noticing police cars and fire trucks parked out front of the building. But rather than put something together earlier this year, I decided to file a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request with the city to see what else I could find out. Which, it turned out, wasn’t much.

This is what I wanted: “All reports, memos, emails, correspondence and repair bills from April 1, 2013 to April 10, 2014 regarding the Marguerite Ford Apartments (209, 215 and 229 West 2nd Avenue) from the Housing Department and/or authored by or copied to Abigail Bond, Penny Ballem, Brenda Prosken, Jim Chu and John McKearney.”

What I received was a letter citing section after section of the FOI Act and why I couldn’t read all 68 pages. I didn’t even bother to examine the reasons, knowing it would probably take another five months or so to get a response.

I used some of the information from my request in today’s story. But the rest was collected through interviews, reports and information given by the two non-profits operating the Marguerite Ford building.

The Vancouver Police Department also provided me with statistics showing number of calls to the building. Both Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services and the B.C. Ambulance Service were no help, refusing to say how many times each of them responded to calls at the building.

To sum up: After five months of waiting, the city provided a stack full of redacted pages about a public building that cost $38 million. And services such as the fire department, which is funded by the public, won’t provide basic information about how many times they responded to calls at the $38 million public building.

I guess I should have simultaneously requested information from the B.C. government, as well. But because the topic was creating a lot of chatter at city hall, I thought government officials would be copied in any correspondence; I’m sure they were and their comments were probably hidden in many of the redacted pages.

Anyway, as I learned this week the B.C. government is no better in its release of information as a report released Tuesday by B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham revealed. The title says it all, “A Step Backwards: Report Card on Government’s Access to Information Responses.”

Here’s Denham: “This is my office's fourth report examining government's performance responding to access requests within the 30-business-day time limit set out in the legislation. In our last timeliness report card, government's performance had improved to an average of 93 per cent on time; over the past two years their performance has fallen to 74 per cent on time. Government's disappointing decline in timely responses to access to information requests frustrates individual applicants and erodes the public's right to know.”

And this: “While the percentage of no responsive records responses has improved from 25 per cent to 19 per cent, I remain concerned about government's record smanagement practices and the deletion of emails that it considers transitory in nature. To address this issue, I recommend that government implement an email management system with respect to senior government officials to ensure these documents are preserved and archived.”

The fight continues.

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