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Municipalities call for change to address ‘abusive and harassing’ FOI requesters

Taxpayers are footing the bill for vexatious and frivolous requests, says Simcoe County clerk
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When it comes to information, Simcoe County municipalities are finding the cost of freedom can exceed $25,000 for a single request.

On Tuesday during Simcoe County council’s committee of the whole meeting, councillors considered a request to the province to make amendments to the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) to prevent abuse of the system that's costing taxpayers money and councillors and municipal staff some of their dignity.

County clerk John Daly outlined some local examples of the system being abused.

Daly said that since 2011, Clearview Township has fielded 790 requests for information from one individual.

“That’s 79 requests a year. Your municipal clerk is trying to process them. Many of those requests were deemed to have included abusive language, both against elected officials and staff,” he said.

Daly said another Simcoe County municipality has spent more than $25,000 processing one MFIPPA request, but has only collected $1,000 in fees from the requester. According to Daly, the rest of that cost is paid by the taxpayer.

Types of requests received via email can also be problematic, says Daly.

“They’ll write a diatribe that is two pages long, and then the very last sentence is, ‘I’d like a copy of this bylaw.’ But all along they’ve been abusive and harassing,” he said.

“The Act does not afford any sort of stop to say you can’t be abusive to staff. But if you had a resident come to your front counter and be abusive, many of you likely have policies that say they cannot be abusive to staff,” said Daly. “MFIPPA does not have any sort of a mechanism to stop the abuse from happening.”

“Taxpayers are paying for these requests," he added. 

The MFIPPA was passed in 1990. According to the letter, the county and co-signed municipalities are calling for changes to the Act to address current and emerging technologies, to look at the threshold for frivolous and vexatious requests in addition to abusive language and harassment, as well as reconsider the practice of keeping requesters anonymous and re-evaluating the fee structure.

“We’ve attracted the attention of the information and privacy commissioner for the province and we’re scheduled to meet with her Jan. 29 to discuss some of these issues,” said Daly.

So far, Wasaga Beach, Clearview Township and New Tecumseth have all passed similar resolutions.

The letter will also be forwarded to other Simcoe County municipalities for endorsement.

Earlier in December, Oro-Medonte Township council passed a bylaw that created a Code of Conduct for members of the public. It essentially gave township staff and council members the right to refuse to respond, or meet with individuals in the future resulting from breaching of the code.

Council members stated it is meant as a way to address harassment and misinformation.

On Tuesday, county councillors voted unanimously to endorse the letter. The decision will need to be ratified at the next regular meeting of council.

— With files from Nathan Taylor

Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 11 years of experience to her role as regional reporter for Village Media, primarily covering County of Simcoe matters, education and features
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