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Freedom of information requests should be delayed to public for 24 hours, says minister

The Tsawwassen port June 9, 2010 as seen from a BC Ferries vessel.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

BC Ferries' habit of posting the results of access-to-information requests on their website before or at the same time as the requesters receive the information defeats the spirit of the practice so needs to be adjusted, says the provincial information and privacy commissioner.

Elizabeth Denham, responding to complaints about the practice, is calling for a minimum 24-hour delay between requesters getting their information and the general release of such information, according to a report released on Monday.

The simultaneous-release option has the effect of pre-emptively "sharing the fruits of the journalist's labour with the public at large," Ms. Denham said in the report, adding that it "impairs the information-gathering function of the media and other groups."

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Mr. Denham said, however, that the practice is legal.

There is nothing in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act preventing simultaneous disclosure.

After a seven-year hiatus, BC Ferries became subject to the Freedom of Information Act in October, 2010.

Ms. Denham also calls for routine posting of executive expenses and calendars, contracts and audit reports.

"I am a strong proponent of pro-active disclosure. However, there needs to be a balance between the interests of the public in pro-active disclosure and the interests of the applicant. The balance is important to ensure that citizens robustly exercise their access rights, and in so doing, the purpose of the Act - accountable and open government - is realized."

In an interview, Ms. Denham said Monday that she expected BC Ferries would comply with her finding because the ferry operation is a public body under the terms of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, so is expected to conduct itself in these matters under the spirit of the act. "I am recommending this in the best interests of the public and the spirit of the law," she said.

She said she had not had any conversations with BC Ferries to measure their reaction to her ruling, but that she would be monitoring their response. "I will be following up," she said.

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BC Ferries spokesman Mark Stefanson said the corporation is in the early stages of reviewing Ms. Denham's findings and conclusions so will have no immediate comment on the matter.

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