David Soknacki’s campaign has hit Rob Ford’s office with a freedom of information request. Expect a long, expensive slog.
Yesterday, David Soknacki’s mayoral campaign filed a freedom-of-information (FOI) request for records that would indicate whether Rob Ford has used city resources for his re-election bid. The rules state that no member of council can use city resources for “campaign-related activities,” but Team Soknacki believes Ford might be doing just that.
So, under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, campaign manager Brian Kelcey requested:
Schedules, scheduling notes, briefing notes, memos, draft speaking notes and emails/electronic communications produced, held or archived by the Mayor, and the Chief of Staff, Special Assistant Communications (etc.), Protocol Manager, Scheduler(s) and Policy Advisor in his office [for January 3, 2014 to February 18, 2014].
“If there’s two or three individuals who are repeatedly breaking those rules, we’re entitled to know,” Kelcey said.
Freedom-of-information laws can be incredibly useful tools for journalists, activists, and engaged citizens. A politician might duck a question, but you’re still entitled to read his emails. Or view his itinerary. Or see how he’s spending his (your) money. And making an FOI request at the city is simple. You send them $5 and a written request, and, if you’re lucky, you’re flipping through the mayor’s phone records in no time.
If you’re lucky. In practice, getting an FOI completed is rarely so easy. Soknacki’s request may turn up some interesting records, but not any time soon—and not for free. For starters:
• Kelcey told us that they intentionally focused their request on a handful of Ford staffers, but their request is still wide-ranging. Usually, the access requests that get completed the fastest are the ones that are the most specific. If you’re fishing for, say, a government report, it’s best to know the name of the document and the author. Requests for various records from multiple people can drag on for months.
• The city acknowledges FOI requests within 30 days. After that, though, they can extend the time needed to actually release records, particularly if your request pertains to a large number of documents or if the search will be particularly lengthy.
• There’s no real incentive for officials to comply with FOI laws. Oh, sure, it’s the law. But that didn’t stop the RCMP from ignoring access requests. And when news broke that Ford’s office may have trashed records following the crack-scandal revelations, the sanction came in the form of a “strongly worded letter.” (Ford’s office denied any deletions.)
• Finally, the information covered under FOI laws isn’t actually free (though there are some exceptions). The city charges 20 cents for each page photocopied, and $7.50 for every 15 minutes spent redacting confidential information. Fees add up quickly. (Kelcey believes their request is focussed enough to keep costs low.)
There are other reasons to be pessimistic—not about Soknacki’s request in particular, but about the ways FOI laws are applied at City Hall. If you request records from Ford’s office, for instance, the city’s response will contain this sentence: “We asked staff of the Mayor’s Office to conduct a search for records responsive to your request.” It’s up to the mayor’s office, in other words, to determine which records are relevant. What’s that expression about the fox guarding the henhouse?
Fortunately for the Soknacki campaign, the election is still eight months away. If they don’t get tied up in the lengthy appeals process, they could have the records they’re looking for by the time the first Ford Fest of 2014 rolls around. And if he’s elected, Soknacki’s first order of business could be giving the municipal FOI laws some actual muscle.
Follow Stephen Spencer Davis’ ongoing election coverage at our Decision 2014 page.