City ultimatum forced Telegram reporter to withdraw ATIPPA request
The province’s access to information watchdog says that
St. John’s city hall was wrong when it offered The Telegram an ultimatum: withdraw your access to information request or we won’t provide you any information.
A bureaucrat with the city said that under the law, the city was not allowed to provide any information to somebody while it had an active access to information request in the system.
“That’s foolish,” Information and Privacy Commissioner Ed Ring said. “If that’s the way they are interpreting it, maybe we should have a chat with them.”
The saga started more than two weeks ago when The Telegram started looking for information about water pollution in the harbour.
Jennifer Mills, communications officer with the city, said that the only way to get raw data on water quality testing would be for city staff to go through thousands of lab reports totalling more than 50,000 pages.
At the time, city clerk Neil Martin explained the situation in a conversation with a Telegram reporter.
“The information you’ve asked for is quite detailed. It’s in various locations. It’s going to require a staff person to sit down ... put it all together and put it in a format that’s readable, and then provide it to you,” Martin said.
“The raw data may be on tape. I don’t know where the hell the stuff is. It depends on who collected it, how they stored the data. So we may have to go to multiple sites to get the data.”
Under access to information legislation, if it would take more than four hours of a staff person’s time to compile the documents, the person requesting it has to pay for the time it takes to put it all together.
Shortly after The Telegram filed the access to information request, Mills informed The Telegram that the city could provide spreadsheets with water quality testing data from 2008 and 2012.
However, she said the city could only send those spreadsheets to The Telegram if the reporter withdrew his access to information request.
“Under ATIPPA, we are required to provide the applicant with the specific piece of information that he has requested, we cannot alter it except for any redactions that are permitted or required by the act, nor may be embellish it or put it in context,” Mills said.
The city’s interpretation was that the “raw data” was the paper lab reports provided to the city.
“I cannot take any of that raw data and put it into a spreadsheet, because that is changing it and putting it in context,” Mills said.
At that time, Mills said that the interpretation of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPPA) was coming from Martin, and she was quite confident that it was the correct interpretation.
“Neil knows ATIPPA probably better than the guy who wrote ATIPPA,” she said.
But Ring, whose job is to provide independent oversight over all things related to access to
information, said there’s nothing in the legislation that he can see which would prevent the city from providing extra documents while an access re-quest was in the system.
“I’ve not come across this before,” he said.
Mills told The Telegram that Martin is on vacation for the next two weeks. She said, “it was his interpretation it would not be appropriate for anyone else to respond.”
Ring said that between 75 to 80 per cent of the complaints he receives from people who have filed access to information requests end with “informal” resolutions.
“Basically, what we do is we kind of mediate on behalf with the applicant,” Ring said.
“Sometimes we agree the public body is right and we go back to the applicant and say so. But at the end of the day, if there is an informal resolution, we would draft a letter that brings closure to the file.”
Ring said that those situations never involve a hard requirement that the applicant removes their access to information request.