FOI Results Could Be A Disapppointment - T-C February 8, 2019

To The Editor, The Times Colonist

Re: “Reform storm gathers steam,” column, Feb. 6.

Les Leyne’s column on extending freedom of information to the legislature made me smile. Anyone who has ever taken out an FOI request for a government body to provide what should be publicly available information is advised not to hold their breath while it is being prepared. When it does finally arrive (after a very long wait) 99 per cent could be redacted.

In a case where citizens in our neighbourhood tried to get some straightforward information from B.C. Housing, there was one little gem that wasn’t redacted in the FOI results we received. It involved a consultant telling B.C. Housing how to circumvent the FOI rules.

Simple: The client should not address anything to B.C. Housing. Instead, address it to a third party and mark it “confidential — contains proprietary information,” so it’s third-party confidential and thus secret.
Don’t think because you’d like to see what’s going on in our provincial government you can find out through FOI. You can’t, and when your large package of almost blank pages arrive, you will feel as Speaker Darryl Plecas described: You’ll want to vomit.

B.G. Judson
Oak Bay

Read the original letter to the Times Colonist online here.

Page 300 from BC Housing FOI 30-0518

Page 300 from BC Housing FOI 30-0518

Most pages in response to our FOI requests look like this:

P 302 from BC Housing FOI 30-0518

P 302 from BC Housing FOI 30-0518

Questioning BC Housing's responses to FOI requests

On Tuesday, January 8, 2019 this letter was emailed to:

Malcolm McNaughton, BC Housing
with cc’s to Hon. Selina Robinson, BC Minister for Municipal Affairs and Housing
Hon. Jinny Sims, Minister of Citizens’ Services (FOI legislation)

 Dear Mr McNaughton,

Re: BC Housing Ref #9444 Project Ref #7958 - Oak Bay United Church (OBUC)
Our group, the Concerned Citizens’ Network of Oak Bay, has recently received information about the above project, subsequent to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request (#30-8718).
It was noted that Michael Flanagan has reported to you on the neighbourhood’s position regarding this overdevelopment project of the OBUC site. Mr Flanagan has forwarded copies of emails from the Concerned Citizens’ Network to you. These clearly outline neighbours’ concerns.
To monitor the growing opposition, we invite you to visit our website www.ccn-oakbay.com and sign up for our newsletter.
The information received under the FOI indicates that BC Housing (Kirsten Baillie and you) reached out to the former mayor and at least two councillors in May 2018 (p 167 of the FOI response #30-8718) It is our understanding that the local representatives who attended these meetings were told to keep what was discussed in the strictest confidence. That secrecy is cause for grave concern. Good news is rarely kept private.
Perhaps you might explain why BC Housing resorted to closed door meetings, excluding the community from any understanding as to why BCH supports such a massive development project for an established single-family neighbourhood? More importantly why do these meetings exclude the people whose lives will be most affected by any decision reached?
BC Housing, as a crown corporation, holds over a billion dollars in taxpayer assets (2017-18 Annual Service Report). This position of trust demands a high standard of transparency, which is not evident in the way this OBUC project is being handled.
In the May 1, 2018 Confidential Advice to Minister, it was stated (FOI30-8718 p 134):
“Residents in Oak Bay have expressed concerns about the suitability of a proposed affordable rental housing project in their neighbourhood (originally proposed for six storeys). In response to neighbourhood concerns, the development has been reduced in height to 3 and 4 storeys.”

This is a false and highly misleading statement.

FACT: the OBUC development team submitted a proposal for a six-storey building to BC Housing in order to secure funding. (April 6, 2017 per FOI 30-0518).

FACT: NONE of the neighbours had a true idea of the size of the project as originally proposed by the OBUC. Rumours did circulate that it would be big. Only after the personal expense of time and money, were we able to ascertain that the OBUC’s original submission had been for a six-storey tower. (FOI request 30-0518, part 1, starting page 24.)

FACT: the FIRST official indication of size provided to the community was in the scaled-down plans presented in December 2017. Neighbours weren’t told these were revised plans. Contrary to the Confidential Advice to Minister, the developers did not reduce the size in response to neighbourhood concerns about the six-storey tower. The conclusion is that the minimal community engagement made before this date had indicated such an ambitious proposal would not be supported.

Further, it is also important to note that those December neighbourhood meetings, where drawings were finally tabled, were called by the developers at very short notice. Letters hand-delivered from the OBUC dated December 6 invited neighbours to meetings on December 13th and 14th, at the busiest time of year for most people. Was the short notice intended to engage as little participation as possible? Regardless, 4+ storey models that were presented to the public in those meetings were met with immediate and widespread opposition.

FACT: Representatives from the OBUC and the development team remained evasive about size and plans until the December meetings. At no time did anyone from either source mention the proposed six-storey tower as submitted to BCH in March 2017.

While the community has repeatedly attempted to engage the OBUC developers in discussion about this project, our efforts have been stonewalled. Worse still, they have been exacerbated by funding provided by BC Housing, as well as being denied access to critical documents.

The developers of this project are clever: they knew enough to establish a third-party representative to avoid disclosure and scrutiny of their plans. See the email from Chris Corps to Malcolm McNaughton, November 23 2017. (FOI request #30-0518, part 2 page 300).

As citizens and taxpayers, we ask that BCH resist this manipulation of the system by developers who seek to compromise and undermine the intent of the Freedom of Information Act. BCH should insist that principals in any projects, who hold out their hands for public money, be prepared to fully disclose their intentions to the public who fund their ambitions.
May we ask at this time, before advancing any further funding for this project, BCH require an independent mediator be appointed to find a suitable compromise. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been handed to a group who thus far have refused to deal with the community in good faith.

BCH now has the opportunity to insist the developers work with the community to reach a reasonable resolution, something the residents have been asking for since the ambitions of this group were first made public.

BC Housing has failed the community in the past. Now is the time for leadership.


Below are the names of some of the neighbours who have helped write and / or asked to have their names attached to this letter. This list is an indication of some of the local support, but it is in no way exhaustive.

Wayne Todd
Wayne Randall
Alan Bolitho
Maggie Bolitho
Barbara Judson
Scott Judson
Jake Richardson
Curtis Hobson
Garen Kassabian
Catherine Griffiths
Pat Hindmarch-Watson
Peter Hindmarch-Watson
Matt Stooke
George Dufour
Ron Matthews
Patricia Matthews
Diana Butler
Barb Lamb
S. MacRae