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Limits placed on freedom of information requests for Summerland man

Adjudicator makes ruling following multilple large-scale information requests from one individual
A ruling from the provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner addressed a large volume of Freedom of Information requests received by the municipality of Summerland. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)

After being inundated with a flood of Freedom of Information requests, the municipality of Summerland is getting some relief thanks to a ruling from the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner.

A 20-page decision from adjudicator Celia Francis, dated Feb. 29, found 10 recent requests from a single respondent to be “systematic” and “excessively broad,” and that responding to them would interfere unreasonably with the municipality’s operations.

The adjudicator authorized the municipality to disregard the 10 requests and for three years, to respond to only one request at a time from the respondent and his family.

The municipality had requested relief under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Over the past three years, the municipality had received 79 Freedom of Information requests from the individual, of which family members made 18 on his behalf. The requests from family members were worded and structured similarly to those from the individual, the adjudicator noted.

Many of these were multiple requests put into one, so the actual number is closer to 180, Francis said in her decision.

Nine of the 10 requests Summerland sought relief from would have generated 46,791 pages of responsive records and three video files. The volume of pages for the 10th request were not calculated.

The requests had been received by the municipality between July 5 and Nov. 2, 2023, and requested emails sent by members of council and certain members of municipal staff, with specific date parameters and keywords. For each of the 10 requests, the FOI request was to provide all records that contained the keywords or covered certain topics.

In the decision, Francis said some of the 10 requests are for the individual’s personal information. Others are for records related to his complaints against the applicant’s neighbour. The rest are about municipal business, with emphasis on one member of council. In some cases, the time frame covered a full year.

“The respondent took a scattergun approach of requesting records containing many names and seemingly unrelated key words, many of them routine or common terms, covering lengthy periods of time in many cases,” Francis said in her statement.

The number and scope of the requests has also put pressure on the municipality’s staff member in charge of dealing with FOI requests, who had to spend 100 per cent time of their time on those issues, leaving the district’s other two staff at times to handle their main duties.

“Given the small size of the district’s staff and their responsibilities to respond to other applicants and to carry out many other duties, I am satisfied that responding to the 10 requests at issue would unreasonably interfere with the district’s operations,” Francis said.

In recent years, the number of Freedom of Information requests at the municipality has been increasing, with this particular respondent responsible for many of the requests.

READ ALSO: Summerland swamped with Freedom of Information requests

READ ALSO: Wait for FOI requests in B.C. the worst its been in 13 years: commissioner

From 2021 to 2023, the respondent’s 62 closed requests took up 565 hours of staff time at a cost of $70,626 in staff time.

All other similar requests over the same three-year period resulted in 623 hours and a cost of $77,875.

Graham Statt, chief administrative officer for Summerland, said the toll on the municipality has been significant.

In 2023, the municipality spent more than $100,000 to manage the volume of requests for information, excluding any other amounts for staff time and associated legal fees, he said.

“It takes away from the other work we have to do. This is disruptive to government business and public service.”

The $100,000 cost is roughly the same as a one per cent property tax increase in the community.

There is a $10 fee for submitting a Freedom of Information request, and the first three hours of staff time is free to the applicant. The municipality may not charge for redacting information when results are released.

“The district works hard to meet its duties under the act and transparency is one of our core values,” Statt said in a statement following the adjudication. “However, the adjudicator has confirmed these requests subject to the application were ‘systematic’ and ‘excessively broad’ and were an ‘unreasonable interference’ with the district’s operations. We appreciate the relief provided by the decision given that an estimated 180 requests were submitted from the respondent since 2019.”

John Arendt

About the Author: John Arendt

John Arendt has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. He has a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Journalism degree from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute.
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