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New West fire department generates the most Freedom of Information requests in 2021

Freedom of Information requests to City of New Westminster drop in 2021 - but it's not expected to last
A report to council outlined the number of Freedom of Information requests made tot he city in 2021.

The City of New Westminster will not be charging any additional administration fees for Freedom of Information requests over what’s currently being charged.

In a March 7 report to council, city staff recommended the city not charge an administrative fee for requests for information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA). Staff noted the province now allows public bodies to charge a non-refundable $10 application fee for “non-personal” FOI requests, which would be paid before a request is processed.

“The application fee applies to all applicants, thus media are required to pay a fee for each request. The application fee was requested by several municipalities and the provincial government as a tool to reduce the number of requests received,” said the report. “It was hoped that individuals and organizations who put in many requests, often vexatious, would be deterred from making as many requests.”

While the province and some municipalities, including Pitt Meadows and Surrey, have implemented the fee, others aren’t implementing it at this time and don’t believe it will reduce requests and will actually add an administrative burden on staff, said the report.

“After careful analysis … it is recommended that the city not charge an application fee,” said the report to council. “This will ensure that the fee is not a barrier to access, and maintains the city’s support for transparent government.”

According to staff, most applicants request information to resolve legal or personal issues.

“Staff work with many individuals who come from equity-seeking groups who are looking for information to support legal or personal resolution on issues,” said the report. “Currently, they are able to access the information since it is free. The imposition of a $10 fee may mean that the information they need is outside of their reach.”

The report notes that the city can revisit the implementation of the fee at any time.

While the city isn’t going to charge fees for processing “non-personal” FOI requests at this time, New Westminster does charge for some information requests.

“The 61 out of 77 requests in 2021 were processed without a fee being assessed,” said the report. “The city received $2,488.30 in fees in 2021. These fees were charged to commercial applicants, those requesting fire reports and for large requests made by members of the public.”

Brooke Holtz, the city’s FOI and privacy coordinator, said the city has decided at this time to not charge an administrative fee on top of the fees it already charges.

“We will still be charging the usual processing fee in accordance to FOIPPA,” she said in an email to the Record. “If a member of the public request records, they will not be charged for their own personal information or for the first three hours spent locating and retrieving records. If it takes longer than three hours to retrieve the records and prepare them, then a fee will be charged.”

Holtz said fees may be charged, according to Section 75 of the Act, if responding to a request will require large amounts of staff time and/or copying. Commercial applicants are charged for the actual cost for providing the records, and they do not get any hours for free.

FOI requests down

According to staff, the City of New Westminster received 77 requests for information in 2021, which was down from 88 in 2020, 86 in 2019 and 87 in 2018.

“There has been a change in overall volume of Freedom of Information requests in the city, in comparison to past years,” said the report. “However, it is not believed this will be a long-term trend.”

With 20 requests, New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services was the top department for information requests, followed by building permits and inspections (17), parks and recreation (15) and planning (11). Other requests were for information from: bylaw and licensing (seven); finance, animal services, and engineering and engineering operations (each with six); human resources (five); legislative services (four); and the mayor’s office and administration (both with three). No requests for information were received for the information technology or the communications departments.

The majority of requests for information in 2021 were made by the public (38), followed by law firms (18), companies (nine), insurance adjusters (eight), media (three) and public bodies (one).

According to staff, the standard time required by staff to process an FOI request was between one and three hours, while the “complex” requests took anywhere from 10 to 40 hours. This includes time for staff to locate and retrieve records, evaluate each request, liaise with appropriate departments, review and sever the records, and respond to applicants.

When it come to FOI requests, Holtz explained that severing means blocking out information in a record that is subject to an exception to disclosure under FOIPPA.

“By blocking out this information, the city is able to release the other information in the record to the applicant,” she said.