Deputy Mayor Noble says he doesn’t believe in coincidences. On Monday, he blamed Central Elgin’s legal overspending on excessive Freedom of Information requests. I’m going to trust him that it wasn’t a coincidence to suggest that minutes before a motion supported by evidence from a Freedom of Information request. DM Noble seems to hold the view that council should blame those who air dirty laundry for the costs of laundry service, rather than keeping our laundry clean in the first place.
Most citizens – and even most elected officials – go their whole lives without filing an integrity complaint or a freedom of information request. You might worry about the financial implications of investigating something that worries you. If you’ve never had to cross that bridge, here’s what you need to know.
Freedom of Information
FIPPA and MFIPPA are acts that guide what information you have the right to access. When you file an FOI, you pay a filing fee and outline what information you require. An FOI officer gathers all the corresponding files, and requests files from any parties involved in the matter. You can even request personal texts and emails, if they’re messages to do with government business. The FOI officer redacts out personal email addresses and phone numbers, to maintain everyone’s privacy.
Once the FOI officer supplies the gathered materials to you, you can review decide whether anything is missing. If you believe parties withheld information, you can pay to file an appeal with the Information Commissioner. The office of the information commissioner will only investigate your appeal if you have specific cause for believing information was withheld.
What does an FOI cost to taxpayers?
The main cost of an FOI to taxpayers is the labour hours spent by the FOI officer to gather materials. That depends on the scope of the request, and whether parties cooperate with the officer’s requests. Once the FOI officer gathers materials, they may need to redact details to protect the privacy of named people. That takes additional labour hours and the officer may need legal counsel to guide the redacting, which can incur legal fees.
Elected officials can reduce the time and money invested in the FOI process by responding to requests rather than requiring them to be escalated to appeal, by conducting municipal business from municipal email and phones to reduce redactions, and by sticking exclusively to municipal governance matters in their emails and messages.
Unlike FOI requests, you don’t pay a dime to file a complaint with the integrity commissioner. When the IC receives a complaint, they decide whether it’s frivolous, and whether it’s repetitious of another complaint they’re already addressing. In those cases, they can discard the complaint without investigating. If the complaint is unique and not made frivolously, the IC will investigate, and the municipality is responsible to pay for the investigation. The bill generally comes when the IC completes the investigation and reports their findings to council.
What does an IC case cost to taxpayers?
The bill for an integrity complaint is paid by the municipality. Elected officials can reduce the number of complaints investigated by working within their code of conduct and making sure they have a strong understanding of the acts that apply to them, such as the Municipal Act, the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, and the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Once an investigation is underway, they can reduce the number of hours billed on the file by responding quickly and completely to investigators.