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Taxpayers’ demands for information costing Lacombe thousands

Information requests from a fiscal watchdog citizens group in Lacombe have cost the city more than $19,000 to process, according to a recent tally by city staff.

The Lacombe Taxpayers’ Association, which has criticized council spending, has submitted a number of requests for detailed financial information to the city over the last two years.

Requests have included a detailed breakdown of council expenses back to 2005.

That material was provided, as well as all costs over the same period associated with a controversial housing project called Legacy Pointe. In all, almost two dozen topics were covered in four separate requests.

In a breakdown provided for council, the city said it spent $9,694 worth of staff time, $8,265 on legal fees and $1,250 on Freedom Of Information and Privacy Act (FOIP) requests.

None of those costs were collected from those making the requests.

The report from chief administrative officer Norma MacQuarrie says the taxpayer association’s information requests are “frequent, large and persistent in nature, and oft times confuse FOIP matters with non-FOIP matters, thereby causing unnecessary additional work for a large number of staff, which interferes with the regular duties of administration and is costly for the municipality.”

MacQuarrie and communications co-ordinator Deven Kumar each spent about 50 hours on requests and another seven staffers invested 55 hours digging up information.

Association member Blaine Dushanek is unapologetic about the cost of their information requests.

“They say that it cost $19,000 for FOIP requests over a two-year period, but we believe we’ve kept about $12 million of taxpayers’ money out of the spending over the last two years.”

“$19,000 is money well spent as far as we’re concerned,” he said.

Dushanek noted that the council expenses request uncovered that Mayor Steve Christie had improperly claimed $500 for tickets to a Progressive Conservative fundraiser in 2009 as a municipal expense.

Christie said the claim was made by mistake and he immediately reimbursed the money.

While Dushanek has seen the value of their information requests, he remains convinced the city could have done the work cheaper. He questions why more than $8,000 was spent on lawyers.

City council also raised concerns about the time and money being spent on FOIP requests.

Last month, council decided to change the policy of waiving all FOIP fees.

Those making FOIP requests are now required to pay a fee.

MacQuarrie said the city is using the FOIP fee schedule created by the province.

“(The cost) really varies. The initial request is $25. After that, it’s really dependent on the information that is being requested.”

Under the province’s fee schedule, higher rates typically kick in if the work entailed tops the $150 mark.

MacQuarrie doesn’t believe the changes will make it more difficult for citizens to get information.

“I think if someone has a legitimate FOIP request, we’ll certainly respond to that, and that’s in accordance with the FOIP guidelines and regulations.”

Dushanek said the group hasn’t submitted any requests since the $25 fee kicked in but doesn’t see it as an obstacle.

“We’ll spend the $25. If we feel it’s definitely in the public’s interest to know what we’re asking, we’ll go to the privacy commissioner and appeal that $25.”

The same route would be taken for any additional costs, he added.

He said the work of the Lacombe group was given a vote of support by Scott Hennig of the Canadian Taxpayers Association, which has undertaken numerous FOIP requests in its role as a spending watchdog.

pcowley@reddeeradvocate.com

 
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