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Activist beats Toronto's effort to block data about billboards

Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner has backed an activist group that was denied information about billboards by Toronto's city clerk.

Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner has backed an activist group that was denied information about billboards by Toronto's city clerk.

Rami Tabello, co-ordinator of IllegalSigns.ca, appealed to the commissioner after the city blocked 110 freedom of information (FOI) requests for information about billboards.

The city said the requests were frivolous and "an abuse of the right to access."

But adjudicator Catherine Corbin supported Tabello, finding that "he seeks access to the information he requests for reasonable and legitimate grounds; specifically, to review the legality of billboards posted around the city."

Tabello highlighted the ruling in a media release Thursday.

After having his requests blocked for 16 months, "this decision entirely restores my rights to research the legality of signs," he said.

The IllegalSigns.ca website says: "Everyone should have a hobby. Our hobby is destroying illegal billboards with the rule of law."

The city could not be reached for comment.

According to Corbin's April 10 decision, the city complained that Tabello submitted some 625 access requests.

"This large volume of requests forms part of a pattern of conduct that amounts to an abuse of the right to access and has caused a burden on the city's systems of operations," Toronto argued.

The city also "appeared to suggest" that IllegalSigns.ca was gathering information to show Toronto in a negative light, Corbin said.

But the group could only establish whether billboards are legal by getting the information, Corbin said. She disagreed that Tabello's FOI requests or what he does with the information "are either illegitimate or dishonest, however disadvantageous they may appear to the city. "

Tabello claimed what the city did was "unfair, undemocratic and contrary to the principles of open government," and the ruling "means that a government cannot withhold information because it fears that the information may be used to shame it into action."

He said a city report released last week, based on complaints that IllegalSigns.ca made about billboards indicated that Toronto has revoked 84 billboard permits and begun prosecuting 101 billboards.

The IllegalSigns.ca complaints were based on FOI requests, he said.

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