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BC Ferries’ openness rankles FOI requesters

The first month of BC Ferries’ foray into transparency after seven years outside British Columbia’s freedom of information laws shows…

By Sam Eifling , in City , on November 3, 2010 Tags: , , , ,

BC Ferries employs about 4,500 people (Courtesy hellobc.com)

The first month of BC Ferries’ foray into transparency after seven years outside British Columbia’s freedom of information laws shows what citizens want to know about the corporation.

Requests for information about safety inspections, contracts for food vendors and banning dogs on the outside passenger decks were just some of the 91 requests that one of the world’s largest ferry services received in October.

All are publicly viewable on the BC Ferries website.

The first wave of requests have come from the general public, journalists and the provincial opposition party. The NDP submitted seven requests, including queries about the firing of a safety director and emails that the Records and Privacy Department sent to staff.

“It provides citizens the opportunity to examine how those organizations that are being run, that are using tax dollars,” Jim Burrows, the executive director of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia.

“Does the average person see that? I don’t know. But in basic democracy, it’s a big advantage, the more open government is.”

BC Ferries has dodged a measure of public scrutiny since the 2003 Coastal Ferry Act classified the corporation as private. It hasn’t escaped criticism in that time, particularly for hiring a German company to build $542 million in super ferries in 2004 and for the Queen of the North sinking in 2006 that left two dead.

But it was the 2009 disclosure that BC Ferries CEO David Hahn’s compensation tops $1 million that led to the B.C. Liberal government reeling BC Ferries back under FOI.

The corporation employs about 4,500 people and grossed $732 million last year. But what should be a bonanza for reporters and open information advocates has become a source of contention.

The way BC Ferries has addressed requests – posting the requests and replies publicly, and charging as much as legally allowed to fill them – has rankled some.

Requesters have complained that BC Ferries’ unusual policy of making its responses to the public at large will chill journalists’ requests by quashing any competitive advantage of a head-start with the records.

“We think it’s an effort to suppress requests and basically take away from … their main rationale for requests,” said Darrell Evans, executive director of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “We think it would be more appropriate to give them first use and allow them reasonable amount of time.”

Deborah Marshall, a spokeswoman for the corporation, said posting the filled requests online is consistent with the law. “We want to be open and transparent,” she said.

The notification list for the FOI updates is up to about 5,000 subscribers, she said.

The price of freedom

If BC Ferries is making its records less valuable to the press, it’s also charging a lot for them.

BC Ferries' FOI tracker listed 91 requests in its first 27 days

Chad Skelton, a Vancouver Sun reporter who covers BC Ferries, wrote in an Oct. 26 blog post that the corporation is intent on maxing out its fees.

He reported that BC Ferries charged the Sun $44.80 an hour to gather records.

That rate is consistent with fees for commercial applicants, rather than the maximum $30 an hour for a party making a request in the public interest – a designation the Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner has in the past ruled applies to media.

“For FOI to work, there has to be an incentive for people to make requests,” Skelton said in an interview.

“It’s going to be very hard to convince editors to pay $500, $1,000, if those records are going to be made available to our competitors immediately.”

BC Ferries counters that as a for-profit newspaper, the Sun should be considered a commercial applicant. The corporation hired five new employees to handle information requests, Marshall said.

“If we didn’t charge for the FOI requests, then it would be on the backs of the users of the ferry system,” she said.

‘You know what? That’s fair’

Posting responses online before the requester gets first crack at them is still a rare move for a British Columbia public agency.

The Vancouver Police Department has adopted the same practice, but the RCMP tried and abandoned it in part because formatting and posting every document was prohibitively time-consuming.

The registry cleaner or Mac security software could be used to ensure their electronic documents are secure.

Also, reporters complained that releasing documents to the public forced them into a feeding frenzy without time for due diligence, said Sgt. Rob Vermeulen, a spokesman for the RCMP in British Columbia.

Reporters with the initiative to make the request also wanted first dibs on the documents.

“You know what? That’s fair,” Vermeulen said.

Since the agency resumed sending out documents on a request-by-request basis, “the reporter’s happy because they got their story, and we’re happy because they had time to research their story,” he said.

As a federal agency, the RCMP is subject to the Access to Privacy and Information Act. In British Columbia, BC Ferries is subject to the Freedom of Information and the Protection of Privacy Act.

Burrows said his office was in the early stages of examining BC Ferries’ practice of posting replies. “But obviously,” he said, “this is a fairly new issue that has come up.”

To David Eaves, a Vancouver open government expert and advocate, the kerfuffle begs a simple solution: Post every relevant public document online, and let reporters audit the information as they see fit.

“From an open government perspective,” Eaves said, posting responses online “is best practice. It’s not [BC Ferries’] job to support the media business model.”