Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

The Gabriola Fire Protection Improvement District staff are spending so much time dealing with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, that the District has put out a contract for an accountant.

This is to allow for the regular financial business of the District to be caught up and kept on time, while the District administrator deals with the FOI requests.

The estimated cost for the contract, if it goes the full six months, is $12,000. The position is posted on the Gabriola Fire web site, and was in last week’s Sounder.

District Trustees discussed the matter at the September 6 meeting of the GFPID Board.

Because FOI requests deal with confidential information, it is not a responsibility that can be contracted out. However, balancing the books, tracking the revenue and expenses, can be contracted.

Chair Paul Giffin said there has been an expansion of how the District records spending and income – though doing this internally may mean some savings with respect to the regular audit of the District.

But, according to Giffin, the greatest factor driving the temporary contract is, “the amount of Freedom of Information requests we receive.

“These take quite a bit of time to deal with.”

The most recent round of requests was made by a single individual. According to Giffin, based on the reply by the District to those requests, that individual has now made a complaint to the BC Privacy Commissioner.

Giffin said, “that opens another investigation that we’ve had to deal with.

“They take a lot of time. It has affected the ability of the administration to keep up with day to day material and still have to meet the legal mandates of the Freedom of Information Act.”

Giffin said prior to 2022, there had never been a FOI requests made to the department.

“In 2022, we received five Freedom of Information requests. All from the same person. There were over 900 pages and documents released.

“In 2023, we have had six requests, five from one individual.”

Giffin said in addition to the FOI requests, there have been eleven different requests for information. “Those would be requests for policy and whatnot.

“Five of the [FOI] requests have been responded to, and the individual making those requests has not been happy, and has filed a complaint with the privacy commissioner.

“We have asked for a meeting with the individual, the individual has chosen not to respond to our requests for a meeting….we are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Giffin noted the call volume for the Gabriola Volunteer Fire Department was a record high in 2022, and looks to be again this year.

“That call volume requires administrative work to be done. We only have one person to do it all. It’s not possible to do it all.”

When asked if these applications are considered harassment, Giffin said there is a section in the FOI Act that deals with frivolous and harassing situations.

“We have made two applications to the commissioner, and in both cases, we have been told we don’t meet the bar.”

The District has requested of the Privacy Commissioner that all files pertaining to Gabriola which come into the Privacy Commissioner office be handled by the same person, so that the Commissioner’s office.

Giffin said the two options were to hired someone to help catch up the day to day business – or apply to the Commissioner for an extension on responding to the requests.

“Rather than get into a Catch 22 of extending the requests to let the financials get caught up – we’re just chasing a tail – so we’re trying to deal with it as efficiently as we can.”

Giffin was asked by an audience member what the individual’s intent is on filing the requests.

He answered saying, “we can’t ask why someone wants things.”

Giffin added one request was for all the bylaws since the District was formed, as well as the names and terms of Trustees from the year 2000 forward.

Giffin said if a requests comes in that involves parties other than the District, as part of responding to the request, the District staff have to contact the other agency/party to get that party to also release the information.

If that party will not release it, there is another step to take to find out why they won’t release it.

If a FOI request comes in asking for information from something that happened in camera, the District responds saying that it cannot be released. If the individual then complains to the Commissioner, the complaint comes to the District from the Commissioner, with a set of instructions.

The District then provides the in camera minutes to the Commissioner in Victoria, and the Commissioner decides what is released to the individual, and what isn’t.

According to Giffin, the District can charge $7.50 per quarter hour on the requests, but has to put in 3.5hrs of work looking for the information before it can charge.

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