Surrey moves to charge $10 for freedom-of-information requests, following province's lead
City says fee is meant to reduce number of ‘frivolous’ requests, which are a burden for staff
The City of Surrey could soon become the first municipality in B.C. to charge a $10 fee for freedom-to-information requests.
The move follows the provincial government, which late last year, brought in a $10 application fee for the requests to access general information not publicly available, such as briefing notes, contracts, or records.
The changes made to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act were criticized by journalists, lawyers, business groups and First Nations. They say the fee will ultimately stifle access to information.
B.C. Premier John Horgan defended the move, saying it was needed to deal with a significant increase in requests.
Now Surrey is making a similar argument about its proposed $10 FOI application fee.
A week ago councillors voted to have staff look at what bylaw amendments would be required to put the fee in place.
A report to council said that in 2020 the city moved its freedom of information services online to make the process easier for the public. Requests in 2021 jumped to 719 from 552 in 2020 and 567 in 2019.
"Many requests received by the city are of a non-personal and very broad nature, requiring significant communication between staff and the FOI applicant to help narrow down their search," said the report.
"The $10 application fee will encourage FOI applicants to make clearer FOI requests and will also help offset some of the costs associated with request processing and document disclosure."
Councillor Laurie Guerra, a member of Mayor Doug McCallum's Safe Surrey Coalition, voted in favour of moving toward the fee. She said it will help fund freedom of information services but also cut down on the number of requests.
She described many requests involving her as "frivolous."
"I just found them to be quite, quite disturbing," she said. "They were very political. It was almost like a witch hunt for something that didn't make any sense to me."
Jason Woywada, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, says he is not surprised Surrey is following the lead set by the province. He expects other cities to look at doing the same and is concerned the fees will ultimately lead to less access to information.
"As much as this NDP government may have said that they are about increasing transparency in government accountability, what we're seeing with the introduction of this fee is exactly the opposite of that," he said.
"It creates barriers and it will now spread across the province into the rest of the public bodies."
Surrey currently allows for three hours of work by staff on FOI requests before charging $7.50 for 15 minutes of work after that or the actual cost of staff time, whichever is greater.
It also charges $.25 for a black and white photocopy, or $1.65 for a coloured photocopy.
CBC British Columbia has launched a Surrey pop-up bureau to help tell your stories with reporter Kiran Singh. Story ideas and tips can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
With files from Kiran Singh