Once again we are reminded that the province’s so-called access to information laws were created to stymie public access, not enhance it.
In the wake of the City of Brandon’s mosquito debacle this summer and after city employees decided to discontinue the practice of making the full map of mosquito fogging buffer zones available to the public, this paper made an official request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act for a copy of the buffer zone map.
We worded the request thusly:
“The full list of buffer zones for summer 2013 that have been requested by city residents who do not want their properties to be fogged with malathion. We would like the information either as a list of city addresses (not names), or as a map of buffer zone locations.”
Our reasoning for the release of this information was that if property assessments can be made public via city addresses, surely buffer zones addresses can be as well. Barring that, we thought that at least the shaded-in buffer zone areas should be available, even if the precise addresses are not.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the City of Brandon refused to provide the buffer zone addresses to the Sun. In a letter dated Aug. 23, the city’s privacy officer, Ian Richards, said the buffer zone information is not equivalent to property assessment information because:
• “... there is no reasonable expectation of privacy concerning tax and assessment information as these details are readily available, from multiple sources and disclosure or publication is authorized by statute.”
• “A request for a buffer zone is an expression of a citizen’s desire not to have their property sprayed and therefore falls under the category of personal information identified in Section 1(1)(1) of FIPPA — (1) the individual’s own personal views or opinions, except if they are about another person.”
As well, the release of buffer zone addresses was deemed an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s privacy, because it could reveal the identity of those who had requested a buffer zone around their property, as per Section 17(1) and 17(2) of the act. Even if the release of this apparent “personal” information did not fall under Section 17(2), the city could still withhold the information because releasing the information could expose the third party to harm.
Further, the city must consider whether the personal information “has been provided, explicity or implicitly, in confidence” and if the information “is highly sensitive.”
In a subsequent phone call with the privacy officer this week, we pointed out that our request was for a list of city addresses — or — a map of the general buffer zone locations if precise addresses were deemed to be confidential, much like the ones that had previously been posted on the city’s website and subsequently taken down when the issue became rather heated in July.
The response came yesterday, that because the city does not have maps of buffer zones on a scale that would protect the identities of specific residents, access to the maps was again denied.
Unbelievable. Why is it so difficult to provide a map of streets with buffer zones locations? Surely listing the 100 or 200 block of street “x” and avenue “y” should be enough of a privacy protection. As we wrote in an editorial earlier this year, the city requests no proof of identification when someone calls up to find out if a certain address is in a buffer zone, or worse still, when a citizen asks a property to fall under a buffer zone in the first place.
In case this isn’t clear yet, the issue at hand really isn’t the buffer zones. That’s a red herring. The fact that city officials suddenly hid behind FIPPA when questions of integrity arose is highly suspect. And when provincial access legislation can be used to prevent access, whether by design or by interpretation, we have to question its usefulness.
We will of course be taking this to the provincial ombudsman to sort out. Unfortunately, it may be next summer before we have an answer.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 29, 2013