Most Alberta freedom of information requests get no results, ‘No records exist’ for two-thirds of users by Karen Kleiss, July 10, 2014, Edmonton Journal
Jessica Ernst has been locked in access-to-information battles with government and industry for a decade, trying to figure out why her well water is so contaminated she can light it on fire.
Photograph by: Jeff McIntosh, The Canadian Press
Two out of three Albertans who ask for government records using a freedom of information request get nothing, a Journal analysis shows.
A review of nearly two decades of data revealed a majority of people who request provincial records are told documents “do not exist.” Fewer than two in 10 will get some of the information they wanted, and fewer than one in 10 will get everything they asked for.
Information and privacy commissioner Jill Clayton said the findings are “concerning,” and she will review the issue as part of her ongoing investigation into Alberta’s freedom of information system.
“I have concerns if important decisions are being made, and records are not being kept,” Clayton said. “Especially if there is some sort of attempt to evade a request for access. You know, ‘We’re not going to write something down, because somebody might ask us for it.’
“That’s not how you do good government.”
Clayton noted British Columbia and Ontario have been rocked by scandals after officials failed to document important decisions; she has recommended Alberta introduce legislation requiring decisions be documented. “How do you demonstrate openness and accountability, if you’re not documenting decisions?”
Clayton cautioned against jumping to conclusions, however, noting there are legitimate reasons why records might not exist, or might not be released.
The Journal collected data from 18 annual reports from 1995 to 2012, and analyzed government responses to general requests for provincial records, not personal information.
The analysis showed the number of people who were told “records do not exist” skyrocketed to 66 per cent in 2012, up from just six per cent in 1995.
People who received “partial disclosure” plummeted to 15 per cent from 44 per cent over the same period, while those who received “total disclosure” dropped to seven per cent, down from 18 per cent.
Jessica Ernst of Rosebud, Alta., is a veteran requester who has been locked in access-to-information battles with government and industry for a decade, trying to figure out why her water is so contaminated she can light it on fire.
“It’s the most hellish process,” she said. “They overcharged me, they withheld records, censored records, they were incredibly bullying and nasty, and when the commissioner ordered them to give me the records … they became even nastier.”
Ernst called it “a degrading process. It’s intentionally set up to make a person give up — that’s obvious.”
Chasing “public” water well records under Freedom of Information Legislation in Alberta, 7 years later, still chasing.
Transparency Minister Don Scott said he is reviewing the FOIP system, but did not commit to make the results public. He expects to table new legislation in the spring.
“I can’t take a broad number and say, look, this represents some consistent trend, because the nature of requests is changing, the volume of information that people are requesting is obviously changing,” Scott said of the Journal analysis.
“There are valid reasons within the act that records may be withheld … I believe the most important factor is whether or not the act is being applied appropriately.”
Wildrose critic Bruce Rowe noted the FOIP numbers come one day after a scathing report from auditor general Merwan Saher.
“He said this government continues to provide barely any information, and flat-out isn’t telling Albertans what they are doing,” Rowe said.
NDP critic David Eggen said he recently requested information about former premier Alison Redford’s planned “sky palace” apartment atop the Federal Building in downtown Edmonton, but government said the decisions were made verbally.
“Our capacity to investigate government behaviour is key to democracy,” Eggen said. “If we can’t know how this government is arriving at its decisions, or spending billions of public dollars, then democracy and transparency fail.” [Emphasis added]
[Refer also to:
MALCOLM MAYES CARTOON in Edmonton Journal July 10, 2014
MALCOLM MAYES CARTOON in Edmonton Journal July 11, 2014
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