FOI Requests - Results May Vary T-C Feb 16, 2019

You can read the original article here. The District of Oak Bay takes months to reply to FOI requests, as does BC Housing. Is it time they lifted they complied with the spirit of the law?

PARKSVILLE GROUP WINS FIGHT TO GET INFORMATION - Jack Knox

With the campaign for open government focused on vows to peel the curtain back at the legislature, it would be easy to miss the small victory celebrated by environmentalists in Parksville last week.
There was a fuss in the mid-Island community over access to an environmental assessment filed by the developer of land by the French Creek estuary.
A residents group, worried about the impact on a salmon-bearing creek, wanted the Regional District of Nanaimo to give them a copy of the assessment. No, they were told, professional reports submitted as part of an application could not be copied without the permission of the applicant. The documents could be viewed at the regional district office, but that’s it.
Backed by Emilie Benoit, of UVic’s Environmental Law Centre, the residents pushed back. How are scientific and legal experts, many of them in far-flung locations, supposed to evaluate a single document that may only be seen in a Nanaimo office during business hours? They argued that the province’s freedom-of-information law requires the immediate disclosure of such info.
The regional district relented. The RDN’s general manager of strategic and community development, Geoff Garbutt, readily acknowledges the initial decision was wrong. When the mistake was pointed out, they fixed it. The regional district takes pride in being open to the public, he says.
Ah, but that’s not always the case elsewhere. In fact, the UVic centre’s legal director, Calvin Sandborn, finds it frustrating to keep Groundhog Day-ing this story all over B.C., going over the same territory time and again.
Too often, he says, government bodies are reluctant to make readily available information that should be public. It frequently takes a drawn-out freedom-of-information application to extract environmental reports that people like Sandborn argue should be posted online as a matter of routine. Too often, agencies refuse to release third-party reports filed with government, treating them as private property, none of your business.
At the heart of the matter is a section of B.C. law that says government is supposed to proactively release — without requiring an official FOI request — information that is in the public interest. The problem, critics say, is that “public interest” was long defined so narrowly that much information is routinely withheld. Even after B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner provided a broader interpretation, agencies stuck to the old ways.
The environmental law centre has fought to change the landscape. After several Oliver-area houses were destroyed by a mudslide in 2010, the UVic-based body — one of those outfits fuelled by young, idealistic law students — successfully complained to the information commissioner that the government should have disclosed reports warning of the danger. After 2014’s Mount Polley Mine disaster, another complaint forced the release of dam-inspection reports the government had balked at giving up.
Similar intervention in 2016 resulted in a knuckle-rapping for the Environment Ministry, which, instead of simply handing over test results related to contaminated drinking water near Armstrong, had demanded an FOI process (complete with fee) that took months to complete. (Sandborn says that when the law centre asked the Oregon government for the same sort of information, the public servant who answered the phone replied: “Tomorrow’s a holiday. Is the day after soon enough?”)
In December, the information commissioner’s office released guidelines clarifying what “in the public interest” is supposed to mean. That’s fine, but there’s often a gap between what that office says should happen and what actually takes place on the front lines. Note that in an op-ed in the Feb. 14 Times Colonist, Larry Pynn wrote about being blocked by a municipal staffer recently when looking for Cowichan Valley logging plans.
It’s great that, in the wake of the uproar unleashed by Speaker Darryl Plecas, the legislature is finally being dragged under the umbrella of B.C.’s information rules. It will be even better if the keepers of the information make it available proactively, without needing a nudge.
It shouldn’t take prodding and coaxing to get public bodies to disclose the kind of information that allows people to make educated decisions and question the actions government takes in their name.

Communities in action - TC October 3, 2018

Gonzales neighbourhood plan put on hold due to community resistance

While this news article from the Times Colonist today isn’t about the Oak Bay, it illustrates how important effective consultation is in any community process. Early and meaningful discussion can save everyone a lot of time and grief. If the Oak Bay United Church had made an effort, the local community might not be so divided today.
The last two paragraphs summarize what should be taken away from the experience of the Gonzales community:

…[…] “the win in Gonzales means you can fight city hall. I think it should be a lesson to our political leadership that if you engage people in a reasonable, honest process and put them first, you’re going to get a lot of constructive input.
“But if you try and basically put up a process as a masquerade to try to get approval for what you’ve already decided you’re going to do, people are going to object. And we did.”

Victoria’s plan to fast-track 10 new neighbourhood plans has hit a roadblock in Gonzales where city planners have met pushback over proposals to shape how the area will grow.
After two years of community meetings, workshops, surveys, draft plans, revisions, more drafts and more meetings, councillors have agreed to throw in the towel on the Gonzales neighbourhood plan, putting it indefinitely on hold.
Instead, the city will tackle such other neighbourhoods as Fernwood, North Park, Rockland, and North and South Jubilee.
“I think the neighbourhood is relieved and celebrating,” said Gonzales resident Michael Bloomfield, who has been opposed to the planning process from the outset.
“They tried to impose something on us through rather a devious process and people found time in their busy lives to rise up and say: ‘No, we just don’t want you to do this to our neighbourhood,’ ” Bloomfield said.
The process dates to 2015, when city council decided on a $700,000 “accelerated” program to, in the span of 3 1/2 years, update 10 neighbourhood plans bringing them in line with Victoria’s Official Community Plan. It’s a process that would normally take about 25 years.
Things started off well for city planners and two of the 10 updates, in Vic West and Burnside, were completed in quick order.
But that changed when they began working on the Fairfield/Gonzales update.
Coun. Chris Coleman, council liaison to the neighbourhood, said many of the objections were simply about accepting change. “People say they’re OK with density, but it’s change that they may have some difficulty with. When you boil it all down, we know we need more housing and a range of housing options but [the question is] how do you manage that?”
He notes the city’s Official Community Plan says Victoria will absorb 20,000 new residents over 25 years. Half are to be downtown, 8,000 in “villages,” and the balance via densification of residential neighbourhoods.
Bloomfield said Gonzales neighbourhood objections weren’t just about density but included aspects of proposals dealing with green space and tree canopy preservation, village areas and transportation routes.
Most frustrating, he said, was that for all the city “consultation,” it seemed no one was listening. “We would be promised modifications that were respectful to the community, and the next draft would come out and none of them would be in there and some new ones that set your hair on fire would have been added.”
Coun. Pam Madoff, for whom updated neighbourhood plans have long been a priority, said it is vital that city planners not only hear from residents but also listen to what they are saying.
Madoff said local area plans have to be about more than population numbers. “I think you have to understand the DNA of the neighbourhood and really listen to what people have to say as well.
“One of the things I’ve heard from a number of quarters is that the Official Community Plan, rather than being seen as a tool, is really being seen as a weapon,” she said, citing the northwest quadrant of Fairfield (between Cook and Vancouver streets up to Fort Street) as an example where zoning changes to allow greater height could tear apart a neighbourhood.
“And when you actually do an analysis of the number of units created in Fairfield, they’re exceeding the projections in the Official Community Plan on a yearly basis. So as they say, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? If you’re already getting these numbers without significant rezonings, why should we change to another model?” Madoff said.
Originally tackled as one large neighbourhood, Fairfield and Gonzales are now being treated separately with a newly formed Gonzales neighbourhood group.
Mayor Lisa Helps said there have been key lessons learned. “One is you can’t rush a neighbourhood plan and, two, neighbourhood plans are more than just about land use. They’re about public space. They’re about transportation.”
She points to “groundbreaking” work being done in Fairfield. “Fairfield is open to density and the best way to densify Fairfield … is to look at how can we use single-family lots better than we are right now, to put in triplexes and four-plexes and five-plexes that look and feel like single family homes but that can accommodate many more people.”
While Gonzales slips to the back of the queue, there’s now a neighbourhood group trying to find a consensus.
“They’re not throwing up their hands and saying we don’t want a plan. They’re saying move on and let us really dig into the issues here as a community,” Helps said.
Bloomfield, meanwhile, said the win in Gonzales means you can fight city hall. “I think it should be a lesson to our political leadership that if you engage people in a reasonable, honest process and put them first, you’re going to get a lot of constructive input.
“But if you try and basically put up a process as a masquerade to try to get approval for what you’ve already decided you’re going to do, people are going to object. And we did.”