A news release issued by the privacy body earlier this month confirmed the town had conducted a “reasonable search for record, but had not provided an adequate explanation to the applicant about the search.” The adjudicator also confirmed the decision of the town to remove the name and telephone number of an individual from a record, but ordered the town to disclose the remaining information from that record.”
“In Alberta we have freedom of information and protection of privacy legislation that allows applicants to apply to a public body for information,” said Candace Cook, a communications manager from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. “That’s what’s happened here.”
The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act governs how information can be accessed as well as how Albertans’ privacy is protected.
It is a large piece of legislation which covers information requests made to various levels of government, the health system, or private businesses.
Barkley Busch, human resources manager with the Town of Taber who handles FOIP requests, said the applicant had filed a request three years ago, but was unhappy with the response from the town.
The applicant then took the issue through an appeals commission.
Busch explained the process involves handing over the information to the privacy commissioner in both “severed” and “non-severed” formats, where severed is how the applicant would receive the information and non-severed is all of the available information.
“This way they can see how we applied the Act to the parts that needed to be withheld,” he said.
Busch said the next part of the process involved a decision which was handed down by a member of the FOIP commission as part of the review process.
In the opinion of that member, while the town had done an adequate job providing the information, there was another piece of information they could have added and they could have better explained to the applicant why the information was being withheld.
At that point, the applicant chose to move the request on to an inquiry for a ruling from the office of the privacy commissioner. Busch said the inquiry is part of the process, and doesn’t reflect any wrong-doing on the part of the town.
“It’s a right of anybody who files a FOIP request,” he said.
“If (the applicant) doesn’t like the answer, they can just keep asking for more people to look at it.”
Busch said there were an estimated 500 pages of information turned over to the applicant.
The ruling indicated in all those pages, there was one page containing an e-mail which could have been turned over.
“When we pulled that e-mail, it had (the applicant’s) name in it because someone referred to a letter they had written to the Taber Times,” he said.
“We severed that person’s name and all of their opinion because part of the Act says a member’s opinion is personal and you must sever it.”
According to Busch, the ruling said the town could have done a better job of handing that e-mail over, through severing the author’s name but allowing the applicant to see the rest of the e-mail.
“So they have the opinion,” said Busch.
“They just don’t have the individual’s name attached to it.”
Busch went on to say he felt the town had done a good job handing over the relevant information, considering how large the job was.
“During the process of handing (an estimated 500 documents) over, we got one e-mail we could have handled a little differently,” he said.
“I think it’s pretty good considering the FOIP Act is very complex and has a lot of legislation on what you can and can’t turn over to individuals.”
“We feel it’s a satisfactory outcome and we’re not displeased by it at all.”
Cost is an ongoing concern with FOIP requests, as the work being done isn’t always covered by the cost of the request itself.
Busch explained how, during the beginning of the FOIP request process, an estimate must be done on how much the request will cost, based on a legislated amount of $27 per hour.
If the time to prepare and search the information is less than $150, the applicant doesn’t have to pay the additional costs above the initial $25 to start the process.
In this instance, Busch said the applicant wasn’t charged any extra for the request, however, he said with the addition of the appeal process and dealing with the commission, the time invested was “significant.”
He said the town handles only a few cases per year for FOIP requests, though this applicant has been responsible for many of them over the years.
“(The applicant) is kind of a chronic FOIPer,” said Busch. “(They) have FOIPed us about 10 times in one year. Other than that individual, we get about three per year.”
He added many FOIP requests are tied to construction and development, as many are from people requesting to see old floor plans for their homes before the construction begins.
Both Cook and Busch agreed on the importance of having a mechanism in place for people to gather information being held either by businesses, the health system, or various levels of government.
“It is absolutely important,” Busch said.
“Governments aren’t perfect, I think that’s proven just about every day in some sort of media around the world. I think it’s important to be transparent; it’s important that people are understanding where their tax dollars are going.”
“It’s important for people to understand they have certain access and privacy rights in Alberta,” added Cook.
“Those people who exercise those rights need to know there is an impartial adjudicator who can review a matter if they aren’t satisfied how the matter is handled by the public body, the health custodian, or a private business.”