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Victoria councillor wants to release full details on Bridge replacement

Nov 03 2012
A petition initially blocked borrowing for a new Johnson Street Bridge. Approval eventually came in a referendum vote, forced by the petition. 

A petition initially blocked borrowing for a new Johnson Street Bridge. Approval eventually came in a referendum vote, forced by the petition.

Photograph by: Darren Stone , timescolonist.com

A proposal by Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt to release all the city's information on the Johnson Street Bridge replacement - making Freedom of Information requests redundant - failed to gain traction with his council colleagues this week.

"So basically anyone who wants to know anything about the bridge, unless there is a compelling and lawful reason to not share it, then it will be available. Then they can fill their boots at the city archives. They can fill their boots on the city website, and it will allow staff and council to focus on other things," Isitt said.

Isitt's motion came as the city has been wrestling with how to deal with a number of FOI requests about the bridge replacement project.

He said proactively releasing everything the city has about the bridge project (with confidential information removed) would effectively deal with "the elephant in the room."

He also wanted council to adopt a policy of proactive disclosure of all non-confidential information for any capital project in excess of $5 million.

"[Proactive disclosure] allows staff and elected bodies to take control of their own agenda - to release materials at their own initiative and to not have to react to requests from members of the public or the media," Isitt said.

"I think FOI is still essential. It's a very important institution in a democracy, but the whole focus in open government is shifting to a proactive disclosure procedure."

Neither motion was supported by council.

City solicitor Tom Zworski, a former manager of information and privacy in Vancouver, said that type of release would be a mammoth undertaking which would be unlikely to stem the number of FOI requests because it would spark inquiries about any information that is withheld.

"My recommendation to you is wait for the FOI requests on specific topics because not everything is being asked for, and process the ones that somebody is actually interested in," he said.

Last month, the city director of regulatory and legislative services, Rob Woodland, argued that staff were being overwhelmed with a deluge of FOI requests about the bridge replacement. He made a rare application under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, to disregard some of the requests.

The application was sub-equently withdrawn.

Mayor Dean Fortin and Coun. Marianne Alto have since introduced a motion calling for at least one additional staff member to be allocated to legislative services to deal with the FOI workload and for a review of FOI processing.

That motion has been tabled until council gets more details about workloads and staffing requirements.

Woodland told councillors FOI requests are being juggled among three different employees in addition to their regular duties.

"Are we doing a good job? No. We're muddling through. What does that mean? It means people who apply for records, especially where the requests are lengthy or complicated wait a long time to get the records," Woodland said.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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