Information policy for review

Sandy Graham.
Sandy Graham.
The Dunedin City Council has no plans to follow the Reserve Bank's lead and start routinely charging media organisations for official information requests, a senior manager says.

Council corporate services general manager Sandy Graham confirmed yesterday the council would, in the next few months, review its policy on charges for requests made under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987.

A report would be prepared and considered by councillors, but at this stage there were no plans to change the council's approach to charges, she said.

The existing council policy was to provide three hours' free work by staff - more than the one free hour recommended by Ministry of Justice guidelines - before charges were applied to more time-consuming requests, she said.

In practice, the council had "infrequently'' indicated charges would be applied, but had never collected money for processing an official information request, she said.

Staff preferred to negotiate with requesters - including the media - to refine their requests, she said.

"Sometimes people are after a specific thing, but just frame their requests in a more broad-brush way. We're more interested in working with them to refine their requests.

"It still gives them the information they're after, without us being in a position where we need to consider imposing a charge,'' Ms Graham said.

Her comments followed those of University of Otago public law specialist Prof Andrew Geddis, who warned this week the "culture'' around the Official Information Act was changing.

That followed retired chief ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem's recent OIA review, which concluded an informal practice of not charging media or politicians for requests was incorrect, as it meant requesters were not treated equally.

Her conclusions were followed by reports this week that the Reserve Bank had advised a Fairfax journalist charging for official information was now "standard policy''.

The issue has prompted expressions of concern from some journalists and politicians, who warned it would be a step in the wrong direction.

Ms Graham would not be drawn on the national debate, but said, while the council's policy made no exceptions for media, "in practice we have a robust relationship with the media outlets we deal with''.

"We try and be as helpful as we can to the media, as well as to the requesters.

"Usually we get it right.''

The council was also considering Dame Beverley's findings on the OIA, and would be considering its own processing times, as well as resourcing for LGOIMA requests and responses, Ms Graham said.

The Ombudsman's new OIA guidelines included new provisions for the release of confidential information, with conditions, which could actually free up more information than in past, Ms Graham said.

The council had a policy of "proactively'' releasing confidential information where it could, and was also looking at new ways to make more digitised information available in future, she said.

The council had been lauded in the past for published official information responses on its website, but those had dried up in mid-2014.

Ms Graham said that was due to "staffing pressures'', but work was under way to get the list up to date again.

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