Privacy commissioner places limits on local's freedom of information requests to the District of Summerland

Local's FOI requests limited

A Summerland resident who has become known for his critiques of the municipality both online and in person at council meetings has been hit with limits on his Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requests.

B.C.'s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner determined that the District of Summerland's submission to disregard ten outstanding FOI requests will be allowed, finding them to "unreasonably interfere with the district’s operations."

The 20-page decision from adjudicator Celia Francis was published on Thursday.

The district sought relief under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act from the respondent.

Brad Besler, while not named in the review, confirmed he is the individual involved.

Francis granted permission to the district to disregard the ten requests, along with instructing the district to address only one request at a time from the respondent and his family for a period of three years.

According to the decision, over the past three years, Besler submitted 79 Freedom of Information requests, with an additional 18 made by family members on his behalf. The adjudicator observed that the requests from family members closely mirrored the wording and structure of those from the Besler himself.

"Many of the 79 requests are multiple requests in one, so I find the actual number is much higher than 79, closer, in fact, to 180," Francis said in their decision.

Based on Francis' review, they determined that most of the 62 closed requests were worded and structured similarly to the requests at issue.

"They included requests for 'all' records about the following topics: the respondent, his property and his bylaw complaints; the respondent’s neighbour and his property (e.g., the respondent’s bylaw complaints about the neighbour’s use of his property, the neighbour’s fines, permits, business licences, development permits, communications with the RCMP and other neighbours, a named business, stop work order); the respondent and his contact with the RCMP and council; the firing of an employee; various contracts, development permits and business permits; communications among staff and councillors; a local pier; a local fence; bylaw fines; staff and councillors’ UBCM expenses."

Besler was previously involved in a lengthy feud that ended up in court with a neighbouring mushroom farm that stems back to 2019, when council retroactively granted a variance to the farm to legalize a number of buildings constructed within the property's setback.

The district submitted that nine of the ten requests at issue would generate almost 47,000 pages of responsive records and three video files.

They also submitted tables showing the number of hours and dollars the respondent’s requests have consumed to date, as compared to those of its other applicants.

"OIPC-related matters for 2021, 2022 and 2023 have taken 565 hours of staff time in the review and preparation of the resulting records, at a cost of $70,626 in staff time. By comparison, it said, all other applicants’ requests and OIPC-related matters, for the same three years, required 623 hours and $77,875."

The district said as a small municipality with a small staff, the volume of requests has left their staff member in charge of dealing with FOI request spending 100 per cent time of their time on those issues.

“Given the small size of the district’s staff and their responsibilities to respond to other applicants and to carry out many other duties, I am satisfied that responding to the 10 requests at issue would unreasonably interfere with the district’s operations,” Francis said.

Graham Statt, the district's chief administrative officer, said in an emailed statement that they appreciate the relief provided by the decision.

“The district works hard to meet its duties under the act and transparency is one of our core values. However, the adjudicator has confirmed these requests subject to the application were “systematic” and “excessively broad," Statt added.

"In 2023 alone, the district spent more than $100,000 to manage the volume of requests for information, excluding any other amounts for staff time and associated legal fees.”

In the fall of 2023, the district estimated the total cost this year of all FOI request work will be in the ballpark of $200,000, which equates roughly to a two per cent tax hike to citizens. Typical budgeting for FOI requests has historically been around $50,000.

Besler said in an email that he will be seeking a judicial review in BC Supreme Court to have the decision overturned.

"The adjudicator's reasons were based on false information and speculation, and I look forward to setting the record straight in court. The adjudicator completely ignored the District's previous bad faith with respect to FOI requests," Besler wrote.

"I am more motivated than ever to continue fighting for transparency and accountability in Summerland because the truth matters."

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