I invited Chris Alemany, a councillor for the City of Port Alberni, to write of his effort to gain information about a subject of broad public interest. It is unfortunate the BC Liberal Government demands that concerned citizens pay exorbitant amounts for information that should be routinely available. What’s even worse is that often times, Freedom of Information applications yield little useful information. What is not hidden or destroyed gets redacted for no reasonable purpose. It is too much for one person to pay thousands of dollars for a response that may be of little value. Unless government policy changes, we should act together when a situation demands. I believe this is one of those occasions and, if you agree, please visit the GOFUNDME site and make a small contribution.
I am no philosopher, nor am I even a scholar in democracy or politics, but I do like to know the numbers… and as a politician, I like to see transparency. So I like to submit freedom of information requests when I see a need.
Pay for Information
I submitted a somewhat detailed FOI Request to the BC Government for information on Wildfire contracts. You can see it further down this post. I did expected a modest handling charge, maybe $100 or so. However, when I received a response back from the (very helpful) FOI officer handling my file I was given this bombshell:
As it stands the fee estimation is at $1,210, but inclusion of all contracts would multiply that amount by seven in terms of hours required.
Obviously there is no way I, as an individual concerned citizen and elected representative with a family and no budget for this kind of thing, can pay $1210-$8500 for some binders of paper or trove of PDFs.
I question even whether a media organization, local newspaper or opposition party would be able to swing that kind of money.
Is this a way to block information? Why are contracts signed with public entities not readily available for the public to scrutinize? Why would this cause so much extra work for an individual in a ministry if we have an expectation for transparency and access to information by default in our public institutions? Or do we actually have that expectation?
Rather than abandon my request, I decided to try something different. A GOFUNDME donation drive to raise the required $1200. It is at:
Thanks to the surprise and common interest of dozens of other citizens I have managed to raise the minimum $1200 needed to pursue the request. Many donations were given ‘under protest’ at the very notion of having to pay for public information to be released. I hope to raise enough to cover up to the $8500 that was suggesting by the FOI office. If I raise more than needed, the surplus will go to the BC Burn Fund.
Please donate. And please ask your MLA why public information is subject to exorbitant fees in order for it to be seen by the public.
Aerial Firefighting and Political Donations
So what was the information request and why did I put it in? Well, say what you will about one plane or another (I’ve said enough), one fire or another or one company or another, when you see a Minister stand in an Airplane hanger (used by ConAir Aviation) and award a contract (and post it on his MLA webpage) you would expect that that is being done on the basis of its merits alone.
What are the merits of this plane? What are the merits of the company? What basis was this decision made and what is the history of aerial firefighting and the historic cost and performance of aerial firefighting groups working for the BC Wildfire Service?
In a time of increasing fire activity and increasing fire budgets, these seem to be critical questions. However, it seems they are questions largely without public answers aside from very broad numbers about the total cost of wildfire firefighting in any given year.
So with that front of mind after the awarding of the ConAir contract for the new jet plane, I submitted this information request to the Province of BC:
Records indicating the number of firefighting aircraft the province had on contract since the 2010 forest firefighting season, broken down annually by company and model and whether it was signed in advance, on call or on a master standing offer basis; The costs associated with each of those aircraft, including the initial contracts, costs to run and fuel the planes, crew costs and any additional costs; A copy of the contract(s) that Conair has signed with the province for the 2016 firefighting season.
The request is roughly in two parts. The first portion is to determine the actual costs of aerial firefighting in BC so that there is some hard data on what each type of aircraft can do, and perhaps how the current strategy and operational mentality helps or hinders the budget and the effectiveness of firefighting.
The 2nd portion has more to do with the relationship between ConAir and the Provincial government based on persistent conversations and concerns brought to me, particularly after someone passed me this link to the BC Elections Campaign Donation website that shows political donations from ConAir and Coulson.
And then a further link to provincial ministry of finance payment records that, when compiled together look like this:
The discrepancy in payment from the government could come down to a number of things that do not have anything to do with favouritism but it does seem something worth investigating. That is why I put in the freedom of information request.
We’ll see if the information I receive answers any of the questions, but at the very least the request has already proven that given a topic of enough public interest, a pay wall, as unjust as it may be, will not prevent the public in the age of the internet and social media, from attempting to gain access to that information. Whether it should be forced to through things like a GoFundme drive should be a matter of debate.