Municipal staff

Harassment of municipal staff, “frivolous and vexatious” requests main reasons for freedom of information reform


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Ferris says the motion “will explode in their face.” People will see it simply as a move towards more secrecy and an attempt to deter the deposition of IOF.

North Bay City Council supported a motion calling on the Ontario government to review and reform the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) and two of North Bay’s most active citizens for municipal transparency and accountability take note.

Kevin Ferris and Don Rennick both used the Access to Information (FOI) process governed by the MFIPPA – and overseen by the Department of Government and Consumer Services – to access the records in their respective quests. to review the transactions and decisions of the Town of Baie du Nord.

According to the City of North Bay website, a FOI is a “legal process designed to ensure that all access requests are dealt with fairly and objectively.” secret, [and] solicitor-client privilege must be protected.

Com. Marcus Tignanelli noted the advisor. Mac Bain was the original writer, but was unable to attend Tuesday’s regular meeting.

Although the motion seeks efficiencies in legislation, an update of its language to achieve routine disclosure practices in institutions and recognition of technological advancements since the adoption of the MFIPPA in 1990, Tignanelli is got right to the point with the motion.

“There are a handful of residents who continually push the boundaries of MFIPPA’s frivolous and vexatious actions,” Tignanelli advised. “We are all well aware of these individuals.”

“Interestingly, a number of the requested changes relate to frivolous and / or vexatious requests – which they believe are unreasonably high and allow harassment of staff and council members,” Rennick told BayToday.

“This is obviously an attempt to silence anyone who is speaking out or is determined to keep their feet on the fire, so to speak, while pretending to be a victim in a manner similar to that of our illustrious mayor. who used this position to ban me from speaking publicly on the board Apparently they would like to dismiss any difficult question by claiming that any request is frivolous and that any questioner is a stalker.

“By asking the province to re-analyze the current legislation, the intention is to increase access to information for citizens but to minimize costs for our taxpayers,” Tignanelli said at the meeting. “I believe it is our duty as advisers to ensure that taxpayers are protected from those who abuse the access to information process – so it is not a burden on taxpayers. “

In recent years in North Bay, access to information requests have provided material leading to a further investigation into the indemnification agreements of two former CEOs and the internal workings of the board of directors. of Invest North Bay in the process of being dissolved.

“A FOI resulted in the publication of the Knox contract. There was a public interest in the publication of this document. The process is not there for the convenience of city politicians. It is there to lay out things that would otherwise be guarded. secret “. says Ferris, who, following his advocacy, was named BayToday’s Journalist of the Year for 2018.

In the case of JTF investigating the departure from CAO Jerry Knox town hall, Ferris notes that the town was “found to have arbitrarily reduced the scope of its search and ordered to conduct a new search. with affidavits under oath. This was requested by the Privacy Commissioner.

Ferris has also been involved in a FOI request for participation and financial figures for the summer of 2018 at the park, but says he made no frivolous FOI requests – he says he did not file any. than a handful over the years.

He tells BayToday that these attempts to regulate claims “will explode in their face. People will see it simply as a move towards more secrecy and an attempt to deter filing IOF.”

In North Bay, the The municipal clerk’s office processes access to information requests and the council motion aims to highlight the volume of requests from repeat offenders and the misconduct of some of them:

“The threshold for establishing frivolous and / or vexatious requests is unreasonably high and allows harassment of staff and members of city councils, and unreasonably affects the operations of the municipality.”

The motion also states that MFIPPA’s shortcomings affect City staff and their day-to-day business practices.

The MFIPPA “does not recognize how the multiple demands of an individual, the lack of staff resources or the expense of producing a file due to its size, number or physical location do not allow for extend the deadline for the delivery of requests and unreasonably affect the operations of the municipality. “

In addition, given that the name of the person who filed the access to information request cannot be disclosed to anyone other than the person processing the access request, the motion states that “this anonymity is used by applicants to abuse the MFIPPA process and does not reflect the spirit of openness and transparency of municipalities. “

North Bay Hydro Detective and frequent city government critic Rennick has been tasked by Administration Director General David Euler to file Freedom of Information requests instead of contacting city staff of North Bay for information.

See: The town hall tells a citizen activist to go to the FOI himself

“In general, staff will no longer respond to your emails,” Euler wrote in a January 2020 email to Rennick. “Please follow the FOI request procedure and we will respond to you accordingly as per the regulations.” “

“I ask the tough questions, questions they don’t want answered because they don’t want anyone to know. So they think that by making it harder I’m going to get sick of doing it,” said Rennick at the time. .

He also noted that at $ 5 per request and $ 25 per call, the personal cost to him increased as he filed or received documents on a dozen issues, some of which predated the CAO instruction to file FOIs.

“What I used to do was ask anyone a question and they weren’t responding or giving me a direct answer,” Rennick said. “I’m just going to send a FAITH and they’ll have to process it within 30 days.”

See also: An embarrassing victory! Canada’s top secret North Bay municipal government, reporters say

Meanwhile, Rennick said this year’s first place in the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Code of Silence Awards is “proof that if you work hard enough at something, you can be the best.”

The Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO) also advocates changes to MFIPPA, noted Deputy Mayor Tanya Vrebosch.

From a presentation given at a recent AMCTO forum titled “Obsolete Legislation Affects All Municipalities: Modernization of Access to Information and Privacy Legislation”, MFIPPA Legislation ” is not universal – access and privacy laws play a central role in the government and privacy rights of individuals. MFIPPA leverages municipal resources while providing the applicant with an affordable research resource for media, personal agendas and / or litigation.

Vrebosch supported the motion and noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some relaxation of FOI regulations, allowing secure sharing of documents online, instead of standard paper delivery. It is not known if this practice continues beyond the pandemic, she added.

The relatively low cost of $ 5 per request plus a photocopy fee of $ 0.20 per page and $ 7.50 per 15 minutes spent compiling documents does not deter frivolous requests, Vrebosch said.

Two of the eight recommendations (see full motion here) refer to interactions between the public and staff made necessary by the FOI process:

  • That the threshold for frivolous and / or vexatious actions be reviewed and that it take into account the community and the available resources in which it is applied.
  • That the threshold for frivolous and / or vexatious also take into account the anonymity of requesters, their abusive nature and their language in requests in order to ensure protection against harassment as provided for in the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

Rennick says that while the MFIPPA “was supposed to provide a structured method for ordinary citizens to access documents that were previously unobtainable if the municipality was inclined to deny access, it also provided municipalities with a means to deny access. ‘access to these documents the publication of which would be prejudicial to its operation or to others. The law contains at least ten articles dealing with exemptions ranging from economic interests, relations with third parties, other governments and privacy.

He maintains that these exemptions were used against him in his dealings with North Bay Hydro and the purchase of Espanola Hydro, claiming that “the City of North Bay and North Bay Hydro have hijacked the law to ignore any demand made of them. “.

Com. Scott Roberson was the only dissenting voice, although he recognized the need to update the legislation.

“The demand to lower the standard for frivolous and vexatious requests will send the wrong message to the public,” he said, adding that it could be seen as an attempt “to stifle freedom of information”, despite his belief that this is not the case. the intent of the motion.

“When our staff receives a request, they have to go through 1,200 records, read them and analyze them. They must delete all personal information. Vrebosch explained, saying the 30-day deadline puts a strain on the municipality’s resources.

“It’s not that we don’t want to be transparent and open,” Vrebosch added.

With files from Jeff Turl

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