Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A tale of two bureaucracies.

Washington leaves Campbell red-faced

By Les Leyne, Times Colonist June 3, 2010

On Jan. 4, the NDP opposition submitted two identical freedom of information requests. One went to the state of Washington, one went to the province of B.C.

The request was for records relating to joint cabinet meetings held a few months earlier, led by Gov. Christine Gregoire and Premier Gordon Campbell.

The B.C. government issued a fairly detailed news release after the October meeting headlined "B.C., Washington State Partner on Cross-Border Opportunities."

But the NDP was curious about the framework and some of the intricacies of the various policies discussed.

On Feb. 3, the New Democrats got a note back from Gregoire's office. It offered all the requested documents for a grand sum of $63.60.

The NDP paid the bill and on March 3, two months after filing the request, it got 300 pages of documentation from the state government.

The striking thing, for a B.C. observer, is that not a single page has been whited-out or censored.

The 10-centimetre stack of documents contain everything you'd want to know about the work that went into discussing Olympic readiness, climate-change initiatives, border issues, H1N1 plans and more.

There are e-mails, minutes of meetings and "confidential drafts for discussion purposes only."

The governor's response even includes the expenses of the state officials who worked on meetings leading up to the joint cabinet session.

What did the Opposition get from B.C. officials when they submitted exactly the same request?

Absolutely nothing.

Campbell's office sent a note to the New Democrats on Feb. 11 asking for an extension until the end of March before responding.

NDP Leader Carole James told the legislature, "Well, here we are today [June 1] and we still haven't seen any document."

The premier is now two months past his extension to the original response deadline.

James asked him to explain why he's incapable of producing records in a timely manner, when Washington state handed them over in 60 days.

He didn't come up with much of an answer. "I will not make an assumption with regard to what has taken the time," he said. "I think it's important that we get the member back the information on why it has taken this time."

Then he volunteered that the laws are different. (They're different in the sense that Washington state's FOI laws work and ours don't.)

Weeks or months from now, the government will eventually comply with the request. Dozens of pages will be censored and the bill will be a lot higher than $63.60.

It doesn't much matter by now. The NDP has all the information.

The content itself isn't that important. (I flipped through the documents briefly yesterday and didn't find anything particularly newsworthy.)

But it's galling to have to knock on your neighbour's door to find out what's going on in your own house.

Because dozens of the e-mails are from B.C. officials involved in the meetings. At first glance, they are just the usual staff work you'd expect. Which makes the lengthy delay and the eventual unsatisfactory response, which is virtually guaranteed under B.C. law, all the more frustrating.

If they take this long to fail to produce completely innocuous records, what do they do with stuff that is genuinely controversial?

Campbell delivered a pro forma defence of B.C.'s unsatisfactory FOI system. But it didn't sound like his heart was in it.

He complained that every request costs taxpayers roughly $2,200 and that the average response winds up involving about 500 pages. So the process costs millions of dollars a year, he said.

Even while spending that money, B.C. still came dead last in a Canadian Newspaper Association cross-Canada audit of compliance last month.

A lot of priorities have shifted over the years. But nothing has fallen further down the list than the Liberals' original commitment to open government.

In the mean time, anyone interested in the inside scoop on what B.C. officials are doing is advised to wait until they consult with Washington state. Then ask the governor.
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist


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