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COLUMN: Nine ministry employees and several months later, FOI request still unfulfilled

Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks evades Freedom of Information request for more than a year with no delivery date in sight
locked documents stock

I read your comments.

I’ve seen commenters on some of my stories say things like, “Did you even ask questions about this, or did you just take (insert politician’s name here) word for it?”

“Do you even fact-check anything?”

I assure you, dear reader, I take my job very seriously. That’s not to say I don’t make mistakes from time to time, as everyone does.

Journalists ask many questions that go unanswered, or are dodged, or are outright ignored. As much as we’d like to, we can’t force anyone to answer a question. They have the freedom to say ‘No comment.’

So last year, when I received an email from an Oro-Medonte Township man who had been let go from his job with a municipal government agency after he blew the whistle on the agency to the provincial government, I set out to check every point thoroughly before putting out a story.

The municipal agency had, at the time, been recently charged by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks for improper reporting, which is what caused to the now-unemployed man to reach out.

Thus began a more-than-year-long journey down the Freedom of Information (FOI) rabbit hole, with my request being handed off to nine different agents and supervisors. To this day, absolutely no documents have returned.

The two-part series I wrote on the issue has been sitting in my drafts  complete with infographics, timelines and comments from both the whistleblower and the municipal agency to whom I asked tough questions  for more than a year.

I spent about two months putting those stories together. And they sit languishing.

On Aug. 8, 2019, I filed an FOI request through the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

An FOI request is required whenever a reporter or private citizen wants to request records from a public-sector organization. As the public sector is funded through taxpayer dollars, many records  such as emails, reports and correspondence  are legally required to be available through a formal request.

My specific request was for documents I already had.

Emails and records were provided to me by the whistleblower to back up his claims, but I wanted the ministry’s copies as well to make doubly sure the copies I had weren't tampered with or redacted in any way before I received them.

Frankly, the ministry already collected these records as part of their lawsuit against the municipal agency, so I don’t think they should have been difficult to locate.

I wish I could say they returned my request in a prompt manner.

On Aug. 29, 2019, I received a letter from the ministry indicating that, based on the enquiry I submitted, the ministry’s search indicated there were almost 1,500 pages of information that could be provided on a CD, with some pages left out due to privacy concerns.

The estimated search time was an hour and a half. The estimate of preparation time would be two hours.

My first case worker’s name was Aaron.

Did I mention FOIs cost money?

The total estimated cost for the FOI would be $118, half of which I had to pay up front. Under normal circumstances, FOI requests are required to be answered by the ministry within 30 days. So, I sent a payment of $59 and started waiting.

On Sept. 23, 2019, I received a letter from the ministry letting me know that the manager of access and privacy had ruled the deadline would be extended to Dec. 6, 2019, citing the large amount of material that needed to be prepared.

I was disappointed, but wasn’t willing to pay more to appeal the decision.

Dec. 6 came and went. Still nothing from the ministry.

I emailed Aaron, only to find out he had moved on and another employee, Leonardo, had been assigned to my case. I had to email Leonardo a few times before he responded on Dec. 16.

He let me know the search had been completed, resulting in 1,344 pages, and he was expecting to have the review completed in the next week or two.

I was confused, because I had already been given the page estimate back in September.

On Jan. 2, I emailed Leonardo again, as I had not heard back. He assured me he would get back to me in a week.

Two weeks later, and with no correspondence, I emailed him again. Still working on it, he said.

While all this was going on, I even tried asking a local MPP if she could help me move the file along, from my position as a constituent.

Barrie-Innisfil MPP Andrea Khanjin is the parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, so I thought maybe she might have some influence.

While Khanjin did look into it for me, unfortunately she said it was a separate shop so she couldn’t do anything.

On March 2, I sent another enquiry as I had still heard nothing. Leonardo had also left the ministry. My new caseworker was someone named Erin, I was told by a supervisor, named Liz.

I never once heard from or spoke with Erin.

After some emails that went unanswered, another supervisor, Noel, sent me an email apologizing and saying she understood my frustration at this point.

She put me in touch on March 4 with another supervisor, Emily, and another caseworker, Sasha, who would be taking over.

Sasha was, by far, the most helpful.

Sasha spoke with me on the phone, indicating that she could get the FOI to me sooner if we pared down my request, by me giving her information on what I was specifically looking for. After speaking, she also sent me a follow-up email confirming what we had discussed.

Two weeks later, COVID-19 hit.

I still tried to be understanding.

Sasha called me on June 1 to let me know she was also leaving the ministry and would be handing off my file again, this time to someone named Dawn, who I have never once heard from.

She had put together most of the files, but now there was a hold-up due to COVID. She said consultations on the file would be difficult.

Consultations occur between the ministry and the involved parties – in this case, the whistleblower and the municipal government agency. If any party objects to the release of the information, they can appeal the release.

Compounded by this is the ministry of the environment has to report to the information and privacy commissioner concerning any FOIs. The office of the commissioner was closed due to COVID. Sasha said they were starting to resume some services in June.

I asked Sasha for an estimated timeline on when I might finally receive these files.

She said it depended on too many factors to provide a definitive answer.

This information is supposed to be public.

On Aug. 6, I sent an email to the ministry.

“We are coming up on the one-year anniversary of my filing my original FOI request on this matter. (Aug. 8, 2019), Sasha phoned me once she left her position with this ministry that the file was being handed off to another agent, but I have heard absolutely nothing since. We are getting to a point where the story is becoming the ministry withholding public documents from the media,” I wrote.

“I understand COVID has affected your operations, however this file has been open for a year, long before COVID was on any of our radars. Please provide an update as soon as possible,” I finished.

I have yet to hear back, two months later.

Does this make you angry? It makes me angry.

There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes at news agencies. On any given day, I’m probably working on at least six stories simultaneously, just hoping that one or two might come together. It’s a 24-hour news cycle. Gone are the days where a reporter could spend a week or more on a single investigative piece.

So when we do that work, and hit the pavement, and ask tough questions, and pore over hundreds of pages of data, it is frustrating when the fruits of that labour don’t see the eyes of even one reader.

Yes, I got paid for that work, but that’s not the point. I don’t work as a journalist for money. I work as a journalist because I think it’s important to our democracy that no one is exempt from being questioned.

And it’s disappointing to me that a taxpayer-funded agency has been able to evade those questions.

Jessica Owen is a general assignment reporter with BarrieToday who also covers beats such as education and Simcoe County.