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Fraser Valley governments—but few other cities and towns—copied BC's FOI request fee

Chilliwack, Kent, Hope, Harrison Hot Springs all copied the province's $10 FOI request fee

This story first appeared in the Fraser Valley Current free daily newsletter for May 10, 2024. Click here to read the newsletter.

In the Fraser Valley, you increasingly have to pay to ask for information or documents that are supposed to be public.

Two years since the provincial government controversially started charging $10 for each freedom of information (FOI) request, a handful of BC municipalities have followed suit. And no region’s politicians and bureaucrats have been so eager to also charge for FOI requests as those in the eastern Fraser Valley.

In 2021, the provincial government announced it would begin charging a $10 fee for each freedom of information request it received. Although criticized by First Nations groups, political parties, advocates, journalism organizations, and citizen groups, the province justified the fee by saying the then-BC Liberals and a single provincial journalist were abusing the system by filing a huge number of requests. It said those requests were increasingly burdensome for the workers tasked with responding. The province had habitually failed to meet deadlines to respond to information requests, and the province said that by deterring “frivolous” requests, staff would better be able to meet legal response deadlines that were frequently being missed. (Under the act, the government has 30 days to respond to a request. It can request another 30 days. But it frequently missed—and continues to miss—both deadlines.)

Those justifications were specific to the provincial government, but the changes to the law enabled municipal governments and other public bodies to follow suit.

Few of them did. Two years later, it’s still free to file a request with the vast majority of municipalities and regional districts across the province, according to a survey of government websites and policies conducted by The Current. (Receiving documents is another matter: the first three hours of work to fulfill a request are free, but beyond that, governments can charge $30/hour.)

The provincewide situation makes the eastern Fraser Valley stick out like a sore thumb, where all four local governments have instituted FOI fees, as well as the Regional District.

Not so free freedom of information

Disclosure: This reporter has advocated against the imposition of fees for freedom of information (FOI) requests because while the cost is small, it adds up for news organizations and deters requests for public information. The increased paperwork required to pay for—and file expenses for—requests is also a barrier that did not previously exist.

Of BC’s 30 largest municipalities, only Chilliwack and Campbell River have followed the province’s lead and started charging for FOI requests. Abbotsford, Langley City, Langley Township, and Mission have not done so. (Or at least they haven’t explicitly. Our survey assumes that websites and other documents are up to date. If a website does not stipulate a fee will be charged, our survey assumes the municipality has not added a fee since it became possible to do so.)

Smaller municipalities have been more inclined to institute fees—perhaps because of a relative paucity of resources. But even among that group, request fees were rare.

Of 56 municipalities with populations between 1,500 and 8,000 people, only eight decided a $10 fee was necessary to submit an FOI request. But that group of eight included the three small eastern Fraser Valley municipalities: Hope, Kent, and Harrison Hot Springs.

The situation extends beyond the municipal boundaries. The Fraser Valley Regional District, which oversees rural areas between Abbotsford and Boston Bar, also decided to start charging for FOI requests. Like the local municipalities, it too is an outlier. Of BC’s 10 most-populated regional districts, it is the only one to stipulate that you must pay a fee to file a request.

The copycat tendency has extended to the health authority in charge of the region’s hospitals and other public health care facilities.

The Fraser Health Authority started charging a fee for FOI requests last fall. Fraser Health, Vancouver Coastal Health, and the Provincial Health Services Authority all charge fees for non-personal FOI requests. But Interior Health, Northern Health, and Vancouver Island Health do not.

Same fee, different excuses

The Current asked the four Fraser Valley municipalities, the FVRD, and Fraser Health for details about when they had implemented the fees, why they had done so, and what difference it had made.

Back in 2021, the province had said that implementing request fees would better enable it to meet the legislated response times it was failing to meet.* The Current asked the local governmental bodies whether they too had been struggling to meet response times and if the fees had allowed it to better meet those legal requirements. We also asked how much in fee revenues the bodies had received.

As well, the province said its change to its legislation was in response to supposedly frivolous requests by BC United (then called the BC Liberals) and journalist Bob Mackin. We asked the agencies whether they had ever received requests from the party and Mackin prior to introducing fees. After an FVRD spokesperson noted they weren’t able to disclose the names of FOI requesters, we went directly to BC United and Mackin. (Other local governments didn’t have such qualms; they said BC United and Mackin didn’t file requests with them.)

BC United and Mackin confirmed what we were told. They said they had not submitted any FOI requests to Chilliwack, Harrison, Kent, Hope, or the FVRD. BC United submitted 12 requests to Fraser Health in 2021. In 2022 it made 10 requests, and in 2023, it submitted 5 requests. Mackin said he had filed several with the health authorities before the introduction of the fees.

Here is what each local body had to say about their FOI fee implementation.

Chilliwack

The City of Chilliwack introduced its own $10 FOI request fee in December of 2021, immediately after the province decided to do so.

A spokesperson wrote: “Substantial staff time and resources are required to process an FOI request, and the introduction of the $10 application fee was a strategic decision aimed at supporting cost recovery by offsetting a portion of the expenses incurred.”

Since then, $2,460 in fees have been collected. The spokesperson wrote the fee revenue has effectively helped cover costs incurred by the city in responding to requests. They wrote that “staff consistently meet legislated deadlines, barring exceptional situations beyond the City’s control.”

Note: Some smaller municipalities have little information about FOI processes on their websites. Since municipalities are subject to FOI requests, and such requests can be made through a simple email, we have assumed that municipalities that do not mention a fee online have not implemented one.

Hope

Hope implemented its fee two months later, in February of 2022. A staffer said the decision was made after the district saw a 60% increase in FOI requests in 2021, compared to the previous years.

“This resulted in a significant increase in staff time spent processing requests,” Hope’s corporate services director wrote in an email. “As the first three hours of processing time for an FOI request is free, which most requests fall under, the application fee in part helps to offset processing costs.”

Since the fee has been implemented, requests have “remained at a consistent level,” and $930 has been collected. The District did not, and still does not, fail to meet legislated timelines. (The district didn’t acknowledge it and we didn’t ask, but it’s possible that 2021’s surge of requests could be tied to that year’s atmospheric river.)

Fraser Valley Regional District

The FVRD said it has collected about $1,000 in request fees since it implemented them in October 2022. A spokesperson wrote that the agency “continues” to adhere to response times, suggesting it was not a pre-existing challenge before the fees were implemented. The decision was made by FVRD politicians in May of 2022. By that time, Chilliwack had already implemented their own fee.

FVRD chair Jason Lum said at the May 2022 meeting that “a lot of staff time does go into responding to FOI requests, but it hasn’t hit the point where it exceeds our ability to respond to them in a timely fashion.”

FVRD staff confirmed that. But the board opted to implement the fee anyway.

“This fee is done normally and has been found to reduce, you know, frivolous keyboard warriors who fill out a form and send it in and put everyone to work on nonsense,” Chilliwack Coun. Bud Mercer said at the time. “While $10 seems nominal and minimal, my understanding is that at other government agencies it has worked, to an extent.”

Staff were told that, in 2021, the FVRD had received 55 FOI requests. In the two years since, it has received 100 requests, suggesting the fee may have deterred a few, but not many, requests.

Staff have continued to provide updates about FOI requests and processing times. In one 2023 report, staff wrote that it had not received any feedback, comments or concerns about the fee, despite having received an email from this reporter outlining his concerns and opposition to the fee.

Kent, Harrison, and Fraser Health

This section was updated on May 22, 2024, to include responses from Fraser Health and the District of Kent.

Officials from Kent and Harrison did not respond to The Current’s email by its Wednesday deadline.

Neither immediately did Fraser Health.

Last April, this reporter interviewed Fraser Health chair Jim Sinclair for a story on board transparency and the lack of public agendas for board meetings. Agendas for Fraser Health’s board meetings could only be obtained through freedom of information requests. At the close of the interview, this reporter mentioned that he appreciated the lack of a fee to submit such a request. By that fall, Fraser Health had implemented their own fee for requests.

After The Current’s deadline, officials from Kent and Fraser Health sent responses. (Fraser Health said they did not receive our original set of questions.)

Kent implemented its fee in February of 2022. The move “was was based on the rationale by the Province, and the significant number of requests submitted by one individual in 2021,” according to an email from the municipality.

The municipality has not previously failed to meet legislated timelines to respond to requests. Kent said the municipality had received 82 requests in 2021, most of which came from a former employee. The district applied Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to be allowed to disregard most of those applications. In 2017, the municipality received 17 requests. In 2018, it received 18 requests. Kent’s official wrote that “these numbers would lead us to believe the application achieved one of the intended goals.” Kent’s email added that: “when we do receive a request, a concerted effort is made to determine whether the information can be provided outside of the FOI process so that an application fee is not required.”

A Fraser Health spokesperson wrote that its fee was implemented on Sept. 1, 2023, to align “with practices of other health authorities in B.C. and the provincial government.” They wrote in an email that the fee helps cover the administrative costs involved in processing these requests.

The email said that since the fee was added, the health authority has “collected just $460.”

In January, FVC reported that corporate spending at Fraser Health had nearly doubled since 2018 and was $480 million in the 2022/2023 fiscal year.

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