Calgary presses ahead with 'Orwellian' freedom of information policy draft

Calgary is moving closer toward a controversial freedom of information policy that a local journalism professor calls "Orwellian" and city staff warn could actually reduce transparency while increasing the risk of private personal information being inadvertently released.

Council votes 13-2 to examine FOIP procedure that journalists and city staff worry could reduce transparency

Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart, left, called for the simultaneous disclosure of FOIP documents to applicants and the public in April 2015 and now city staff are drafting a specific policy. Coun. Druh Farrell, right, voted against the plan. (CBC)

Calgary will draft a freedom of information policy that a local journalism professor calls "Orwellian" and city staff warn could actually reduce transparency while increasing the risk of private personal information being inadvertently released.

The policy could see city documents requested under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) Act given not only to the person who requested them, but then also published online.

The so-called "document dump" approach to FOIP requests was briefly attempted by the Alberta government under previous premier Jim Prentice in 2015, before being effectively abandoned.

The province's move was widely criticized by journalists and opposition parties at the time, who said the change would undermine the exclusivity of documents they often spend great amounts of time and money working to obtain.

Exclusive stories or "scoops" are highly valuable to reporters, activists and opposition members, said Sean Holman, a professor of journalism at Mount Royal University.

"People with a private interest to hold government to account — whether it be reporters, activists or opposition politicians — do so because it's not just in the public interest, but also because they're able to get something out of that," he said.

"So, if you put that information out there to everyone, it ruins the scoop and decreases the incentive to file a freedom of information request. Rightly or wrongly, this is how accountability works in a democratic society."

Delay of several days

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he also worries about city documents being released publicly at the same time as they're given to FOIP applicants.

"My biggest concern is that … doing it simultaneously removes the incentive for members of the press to do it, because they lose their scoop," the mayor said during Monday's city council meeting.

"And, surprisingly, I don't want them to lose their scoops, because I think investigative reporting is a good thing."

Nenshi still voted in favour of drafting the policy, however, saying he was satisfied with a recommendation from city staff to include a waiting period of between 72 hours and seven days between giving documents to a FOIP applicant and making them publicly available.

But Holman said that won't always be long enough for journalists to properly digest the often complex, voluminous and highly redacted information that can be released through FOIP requests.

"The media needs time to read documents … it needs time to interview people about those documents, it needs time to fully understand those documents," he said.

Couns. Evan Woolley and Druh Farrell were the only two to vote against the FOIP policy changes.

"What problem are we trying to solve with this?" Farrell said. "I'm wondering if someone could explain that to me."

So, where did the policy come from?

Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart introduced the idea in April 2015 during a discussion about the city's FOIP processing costs, suggesting it would be a way to discourage reporters from filing so many requests.

"I raise this because … a lot of the inquiries are generated by the media," Colley-Urquhart said during the April 27, 2015 council meeting. "And they want an exclusive on the story but the minute that it's going to be simultaneously released and become public information..."

"...They lose their scoop," Nenshi interjected, finishing her sentence as she struggled to find the right words.

"Yeah," Colley-Urquhart replied. "And there's a decrease in the number of these things. So I just want to know if this is possible and what the merits of it would be."

'Nefarious or vexatious' scoops

This week, Colley-Urquhart reiterated her concern about the number of FOIP requests the city receives and "the amount of time and effort and taxpayer dollars" that go into fulfilling them.

"Hundreds and hundreds of hours are taken up by these FOIP requests that come in," she said at Monday's council meeting.

She acknowledged the need for investigative journalism, but questioned the motives of some journalists.

"Media scoops are great, absolutely," Colley-Urquhart said. "Whether they're nefarious or vexatious, or whether they're worthy or not, who knows?"

Media accounts for 6.7% of FOIP requests

The city tracks how many FOIP requests it receives and classifies them by the type of applicant.

In 2015, there were 379 requests and, of those, 25 came from "media."

That's 6.7 per cent of the total.

The most frequent applicant type was "business," which made up 45.6 per cent of FOIP requests, followed by "personal," at 21.4 per cent.

Holman said Alberta tends to see fewer FOIP requests, in general, than other provinces because it costs more to file them here.

Individual requests must come with a $25 fee in Alberta, he noted, while in other provinces the requests cost $5 each or are free to file.

There are often additional costs to receive documents, depending on the volume of information requested.

'Proactive' or 'reactive' disclosure?

In a report to council, city staff warned of numerous risks associated with the simultaneous disclosure of FOIP documents.

"Making the response publicly available at the same time it is released to the applicant could remove this incentive for applicants to make FOIP requests and result in less transparency," the report reads.

"Failure to consider all factors could lead to mistakes in releasing inappropriate information," it adds.

As a result, city staff are also advising a different route, one of so-called "proactive" rather than "simultaneous" disclosure.

"Proactive disclosure is the practice of making information available to the public without the necessity of a formal FOIP request," the report reads.

But Holman is skeptical of council following through on that, especially as part of a process that began with a call to adopt the document-dump approach of fulfilling FOIP requests.

"I think the City of Calgary is being a bit Orwellian in categorizing it the way it is," he said.

"This is not a proactive release policy. This is a reactive release policy. If it was a proactive release policy, then the City of Calgary would be releasing broad categories of documents without anyone asking for them. A reactive release policy is one where someone asks for the record and then the city, begrudgingly sometimes, puts it out there."

The draft policy is to come back to council by March and, if approved, Nenshi said it could take effect by fall 2017.


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