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Journalism pointers: How to get information from city hall without FOI

January 22nd, 2009 · 13 Comments

I see that my learned friends over at Citycaucus noted that I recently got a list of the expenses related to the inauguration of the new Vision Vancouver city council in December. While they seemed pleased to get the information, they weren’t happy that I got it before them when they had asked for the list of expenses in a Freedom of Information request a month ago.

To help out them and all the new bloggers currently invading the civics scene, here is what I teach in my Journalism Research class at Langara when I do the session on FOI. The first rule of FOI is to pick up the phone and ask the right person if you can get the information without having to FOI it. Often you can.

There are no set rules in any government organization specifying what you have to FOI and what you don’t. It sometimes even varies from person to person within a department. So, repeating this one more time, it’s always wise to pick up the phone first.

That’s something that I have to keep reminding myself all the time and I’ve missed more than a couple of scoops because I sat around waiting for my FOI request to come through while someone else just made a call. I’ve even managed to scoop myself, in a way.

I remember putting in an FOI on the cost of former mayor Sam Sullivan’s Project Civil City launch, which involved Norman Stowe’s PACE Group public-relations team, printing costs, hotel rental costs and a few other things, if I’m not mistaken. Anna Lilly, who was in the mayor’s office at the time, took pity on me and let me know during a phone converstion that I could just ask for those expenses, which she promptly gave me. So I ended up getting the information from her before my own FOI request came back. Duh.

Obviously, city hall can’t start answering every random request for information from every citizen who wants to know something. And there are certain pieces of information that it’s pretty standard that you can’t get without an FOI. (Judy Rogers’ and Estelle Lo’s severance payments, for example.) But staff usually are pretty forthcoming with anyone who qualifies as public-serving news media. Granted, that’s a little bit of a hard line to draw these days sometimes, so maybe some of you will have to make the case on that.

Categories: City Hall Talk

  • Stepan Vdovine

    Citycaucus hardly qualifies as “public-serving news media” and they most certainly can use at least a few more of your Langara lessons, Francis.

  • Suzie

    Good for you for giving those myth-spinning pups over at City Caucus a little Journalism 101 tutorial…

  • julia

    play nice. One of you is a journalist and the others are political refugees. Different skill sets and there is room for both of you. 🙂

    But, I have to agree with you – in my personal/professional dealings with city hall it is amazing what you can find out with a patient, simple and polite ask,… or using a little skill called Google!

    I confess I am having great fun tracking the banter between Frances, Jeff and Daniel. Vancouver politics has never been so much fun. Keep it up.

  • The first rule of FOI is to pick up the phone and ask the right person if you can get the information without having to FOI it.
    _____

    But staff usually are pretty forthcoming with anyone who qualifies as public-serving news media.

    “Check” and “Mate,” CityCaucus boys . . . .

  • “The first rule of FOI is to pick up the phone and ask the right person if you can get the information without having to FOI it.”
    _____

    “But staff usually are pretty forthcoming with anyone who qualifies as public-serving news media.”

    “Check” and “Mate,” CityCaucus boys . . . .

  • Bob–

    Chess?

    They play chess in Spamalot?

    Well, then again, I guess the oh-so friendly denizens are, as Frances said, ‘learned’.

    .

  • Citycaucus used one of my copyrighted photos without asking for permission even though it is marked “all rights reserved” on the originating page and a warning not to steal my shots appears on my profile. Even after I messaged them, they wouldn’t remove the shot until I threatened legal action.

    Sounds to me like they’re asking when they don’t have to and not asking when they are legally bound to. Lost in the spin cycle.

    *whrrrrrrrrrrr*

  • Frances: Sorry ’bout the double-comment above. I think I was having Shaw intertubes problems!

    Blackbird: Checked out your photos on Flickr. GREAT stuff . . . .

  • Thanks, WEB.

  • tommi

    CityCaucus.com does provide a good counterpoint to the many other blogs who are pro-Vision and anti-NPA. So, I think their contribution to the local news is needed.

    However, I wish they’d drop all the stuff about “CityCaucus Tower,” “20 floors of researchers,” and posting fake news about their pretend billboards. It’s hard to take them seriously when they incorporate fantasy with fact in nearly every story.

  • spartikus

    CityCaucus.com does provide a good counterpoint to the many other blogs who are pro-Vision and anti-NPA

    Er…define “many”.

    I don’t have “data”, but I suspect the NPA isn’t grossly outnumbered in what is, let’s face it, a tiny local blogging scene. But even if true, the retort would be the NPA more than adequately gets it’s message out in the pages of the Sun, Province, and on the screens of the CBC, Global Newshour and CTV.

    If the NPA is unpopular right now, maybe it’s not because they don’t have enough blogs or Twitter accounts…maybe it’s because they hold positions and have conducted themselves in a way that makes them unpopular.

    And Blackbird…you really should have replaced the photo with…something else 🙂

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    It cannot be emphasized enough…a failed former Chief of Gaffe and a charlatan pretender, who held up Planning Commission meetings so that he could learn basics on-the-fly, hardly constitute being “learned”.

    These are just two Sam dittoheads, who want to keep their names in self-propped lights. Mike Klassen wandered aimlessly for the entire lead up to the election lunching with anyone who didn’t have a root canal scheduled for that day, asking if they thought Mikey should run for public office.

    Danny, long separated from Annie, had such a stellar run as head lickspittle that he has naturally landed a job in Victoria?…er…Ottawa?

    Right? I mean where else would such a successful crew land???

    Right back where they all started from. The vast majority of them went back to their old firms and jobs because the were radioactive, having willfully juggled the Kryptonite for three years.

    Now tommi tells us they provide context. but you are surprised they are infused by fantasy?

    Ever heard the local story of Banquo?

    You don’t drink Kool-Aid on the rocks do you?

    Defeats the whole purpose…

    🙂 🙂 🙂

  • spartikus: I’m not sure I get you. Replace it with what? CityCaucus replaced it with a photo of the single for The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” thinking it appropriately illustrated a story on Judy Rogers’ firing. I disagree. She had no say in the matter, so the question doesn’t fit the context. After I saw that, I haven’t wasted time with CityCaucus. Not one visit to their site.

    I definitely don’t get AGT. It’s like he’s writing in another language sometimes. No offense intended. Maybe it’s me. Anyway, I just don’t get him.