‘Political interference’ threatens fair access-to-information: Alto

City of Victoria’s application against magazine leaves council searching for solutions to open local government

Before the City of Victoria can take the extraordinary measure of limiting a person’s right to information, there ought to be some political oversight.

Coun. Lisa Helps made that argument, unsuccessfully, to fellow councillors, adding that such an important decision ought not to be in the hands of only one staff person.

Caught at the receiving end of a hailstorm of criticism over a decision they had nothing to do with, Helps and Coun. Ben Isitt sought an unusual fix to a highly unusual problem.

“This motion comes from a loud response from the public,” Helps said at last week’s priorities and governance committee meeting of city council.

The City of Victoria is in the midst of a highly publicized conflict with Focus magazine.

On Aug. 7, Victoria’s freedom of information co-ordinator, Rob Woodland, made the unilateral decision to apply to the Information and Privacy Commissioner under section 43 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

If the application is granted, it will allow the city to limit information requests made by contributors to Focus. It would also be the first time the section would be used to limit a media organization in B.C.

Acting in accordance with city bylaws, Woodland did not consult council before his decision, but he did inform council of the move in late August.

The goal, as it is in most B.C. municipalities, is to keep elected officials at arm’s length from access decisions.

Helps, however, argued in favour of doing things differently.

“We, as a public body, in a very public process, need to take responsibility for (these significant moments),” she said. “I really strongly think that it will not be misused by councils, because of the political consequences of keeping the public closed out of important discussions.”

The issue split councillors right down the middle.

While Helps called for political leadership, Coun. Marianne Alto warned of political interference.

“I would not have proceeded as Rob Woodland has done,” Alto said. However, she defended his right to make the decision.

“Whether it’s with the best of intentions, or whether it’s because I believe I have right on my side, I should not have the authority, or the opportunity, to at all interfere with the process that has been laid out by the provincial government to protect freedom of information.”

Alto’s words proved persuasive to a majority on council, which voted 5-4 against Helps’ motion.

Expect an alternative motion by Alto in the coming weeks, calling on the city to hire more staff to deal with freedom-of-information requests to the city.

rholmen@vicnews.com

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