Citizens Services Minister Jinny Sims takes questions in the B.C. legislature Oct. 19, 2017 about delayed information on the Pressy Lake fire that destroyed 33 homes near 100 Mile House in August. (Hansard TV)

Changes coming to FOI rules, B.C. minister says

Jinny Sims looking at 72-hour public release policy

Weekly newspapers and freelance journalists might soon get more time to produce stories gleaned from freedom of information requests to the B.C. government.

Citizens Services Minister Jinny Sims isn’t making any promises, but a review of freedom of information (FOI) requests to the B.C. government and its agencies is underway, and the policy of releasing all results on a public website 72 hours after they are given to the applicant is part of that.

B.C. Ferries was the first provincial agency to start public release of all FOI requests, and the rest of the government followed suit under the previous B.C. Liberal administration.

“It has been brought to my attention that this is still happening, and we’re doing a review, and we’re looking at making some changes,” Sims said in an interview with Black Press.

“One of the things that I’ve also heard is that when you publish a name on a website of who has put in a request, that also has a chilling factor for some people. So we’re looking at the whole issue around this, and we are planning to make changes.”

The NDP promised in the spring election campaign to change the public release policy.

After former finance minister Mike de Jong began posting FOI responses to a public website, researchers and reporters objected. Media lawyer David Sutherland noted that when law firms use FOI for civil cases, they try to keep them secret from the other side. He predicted public release would result in lawyers using agents to file requests, adding more complexity to cases.

Sims said the on-time performance of response to FOI requests has also improved, up from 80 per cent last year to 91 per cent. She attributed the improvement to her new direction for staff, who she said have been “unleashed to do their job.”

Sheer volume of FOI requests is an issue for the B.C. government, including everything from political staff combing through ministers’ calendars to provincial prison inmates demanding menus of correctional institutions.

“We do have a small number of high-volume users, the frequent flyers on our FOI system, and they do generate significant workload pressures,” Sims said. “In 2016-17 alone, two requesters were responsible for 29 per cent of all general requests, and one of these two requesters generated 65 per cent of all media-related FOI requests.”

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