Municipal Freedom of Information Requests: Understanding the Basics
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Freedom of Information Requests
There are many reasons an individual might want to make a freedom of information request from a municipality. An individual may want to obtain their own personal information or request that their personal information be changed. A potential litigant or litigant may want to gain information about their property or the release of documents belonging to a public process such as an expropriation or infrastructure process. A potential litigant or litigant may also want to gain information from an administrative agency or board whose decision they are challenging or considering challenging with an appeal for judicial review.
Any individual can request information from a municipal or federal government institution, so long as the request is not frivolous or vexatious. In this article we focus on requests made under the municipal legislation.
About the MFIPPA
The Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (the “Act” or “MFIPPA”) is a piece of legislation, which became effective in 1991. The Act secures the right of access to information and the protection of personal privacy. The Act attempts to find a balance between these two conflicting principles by promoting transparency while simultaneously safeguarding personal information. MFIPPA applies to all municipal corporations in Ontario such as a regional municipality or a local board or agency. MFIPPA does not apply to private corporations, hospitals or federal institutions.
How the Process Works
The Act compels municipal institutions to appoint a head who will be responsible for overseeing requests made under the MFIPPA. The head will ensure that the institution responds to requests for information, reviews the necessary documents and discloses the appropriate documents unless they fall under one of the exemptions, such as solicitor-client privilege or personal information.
Where an exemption applies, the information may be removed from the document or the entire document may be withheld from disclosure. The institution must conduct a reasonable search for documents that are responsive to the request. Documents requested may include paper or electronic records such as drawings, photographs, maps or videos.
How to Request Documents from a Municipality
The easiest way to obtain information is by making an informal request directly to the municipality. This can often produce the desired documents or information. If an informal request is unsuccessful, a formal request can be made.
Here are the steps to make a formal request for information:
- A formal request form or written letter can be sent to the municipality. Information can usually be found on a municipality’s website regarding where to send the request.
- The request must be forwarded to the Freedom of Information Co-ordinator along with a small application fee.
- The municipality should provide written notice of their decision in response to the request within 30 days. A municipality may request an extension of time for an extensive request.
- In order to obtain the documents being disclosed by the municipality, the requestor will need to pay some fees to the municipality for searching for, photocopying and shipping the documents.
How to Appeal to the Information and Privacy Commissioner
An appeal can be filed to the Information and Privacy Commissioner (“IPC”) for various reasons, such as if the municipality does not respond to the request, the municipality denies access to some or all of the information requested or the requestor disagrees with the fee.
Here are the steps to file an appeal with the IPC:
- A letter or completed appeal form must be sent to the IPC within 30 days of receiving the institution’s decision. This letter should explain the reasons for the appeal and should enclose copies of the original request, the municipality’s decision and the applicable appeal fee.
- The appeal will be reviewed by the IPC and may be settled through mediation or adjudication. Typically mediation will be the first process.
- If mediation is unsuccessful an arbitrator will conduct an inquiry. The arbitrator will accept representations from each party, review the records and make an order. More information on filing an appeal can be found at the IPC website.
Please contact Michael Paiva for more information about the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, or if you require assistance with a possible freedom of information request or appeal.