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Opinion: Untangling the RMOW's lawsuit against Pique Newsmagazine

'Sometimes, if you just delay long enough, the world has no choice but to move on without you.'
The Resort Municipality of Whistler spent $28,000 suing Pique Newsmagazine in 2021, according to an FOI.

Here at Pique, we occasionally hear from readers who wonder why they don’t see certain stories, or who criticize us for not asking what they deem “the tough questions.”

My response is always some version of the same: Pique pursues difficult stories and asks tough questions of officials every day—we just don’t always get timely or usable answers.

That is to say, news reporting is a constant information juggling act, and you don’t often see all of the ingredients that went in to making the finished product.

Some people seem to believe that hard-hitting, investigative journalism is something that can be pulled off in a day, and always produces results.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Investigative journalism takes time, money, and a dogged persistence. Even with all of that, many journalistic investigations don’t result in anything being published.

It’s a major reason why so many news outlets are sadly moving away from investigative journalism—the potential return on investment is low at the best of times, and often a total crapshoot.

Because in most cases, if officials don’t want you to have certain info, they have many tools at their disposal to keep it from you—or at the very least, delay until it’s no longer relevant.

Take the 2021 ransomware attack that crippled Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) services for weeks. It’s been almost exactly two years since the major cyber security breach, and a related Freedom of Information process has only recently wrapped up.

What do we have to show for the two-year-long journalistic endeavour? We’ll come back to that. First, a little more on the process itself.

(In the interest of fairness, let’s preface this by acknowledging that the ransomware attack caught the entire town off guard, and left local officials operating in the dark without a playbook—in situations like that, all bets are off as far as normal operating procedures go.)

On April 28, 2021, the RMOW was made aware of a serious IT security breach, potentially exposing the personal information of thousands.

In the coming days, the criminals responsible for the attack leaked sensitive employee info on the dark web (buried in a folder labelled “trash”) as proof of their exploits.

In May 2021, Pique reported, in general terms, the contents of the trash folder, believing it to be in the public interest, and a clear sign of the extent of the seriousness of the attack that the public deserved to know.

In response, the RMOW launched a lawsuit against the paper, seeking unsuccessfully to restrict what Pique could publish about the ransomware attack. The RMOW argued that it was seeking to protect the privacy of its staff, and alleged in its court filings that it did not have detailed knowledge of the data available on the dark web.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Wilkinson declined the RMOW’s request for a temporary order restricting the newsmagazine’s coverage. Referring to the injunctive relief the RMOW requested, Wilkinson said: “I have serious concerns about the precedent that this sets.”

The RMOW walked away from the lawsuit in July 2021.

In August, Pique submitted a broad Freedom of Information request seeking a wide range of correspondence related to the attack and subsequent lawsuit, as well as the total costs of the legal action.

When the RMOW’s cost estimate for collecting the information came in at $3,510, Pique submitted a scaled-back version of the FOI request on Sept. 22, 2021, seeking meeting notes, correspondence and court costs.

The revised request was received on Oct. 4, 2021, and on Oct. 21, the RMOW invoiced Pique $217.50 to collect the requested info.

Again believing the info to be in the public interest, Pique applied for the fees to be waived. On Nov. 5, 2021, the RMOW granted that request.

On Jan. 5, 2022, the RMOW advised Pique it had applied for a 30-day extension with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC), and was given a new deadline of Feb. 2, 2022.

On that day, more than nine months after the initial attack, Pique received its first FOI response on the matter from the RMOW.

It contained pages and pages of black ink, interspersed with meaningless staff exchanges and useless information. Anything remotely revealing or useful for Pique’s readers was banished into the ether using the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

In total, the RMOW cited 10 different sections or subsections of the Act in denying Pique the info it sought.

On Feb. 10, 2022, Pique requested that the OIPC review the RMOW’s response.

Over the next several months, an investigator with the OIPC reviewed the unredacted records and corresponded with RMOW officials on multiple occasions.

On Feb. 9, 2023, the RMOW released a “reconsidered” version of the requested documents, which unredacted some of the originally withheld information—but still did little to answer Pique’s questions.

In her final assessment, issued Feb. 28, 2023, OIPC investigator Shannon Hodge said she did not believe the RMOW’s application of the act was correct in all cases.

“However, in my opinion, the areas to which it has been inappropriately applied are relatively small and the information somewhat inconsequential,” Hodge wrote.

Rather than drag the process out further and send it to inquiry, Pique requested the file be closed.

So… what did we learn from this exercise? A few things.

The RMOW spent $28,000 of your money to sue your local newspaper after the municipality compromised your personal information. The RMOW would not disclose this info freely; it had to be uncovered using an FOI.

We also learned that mayor and council were “supportive of the decision” to sue, according to a text from Mayor Jack Crompton to former communications manager Gillian Robinson—but, according to those text exchanges, the court action was filed before council was informed. So this was fundamentally a staff decision—are voters comfortable with that?

And finally, we learned, or maybe just reinforced, that municipal governments and politicians will fill you full of hot air and lovely thoughts about “transparency” and “openness” until the exact second they have something that might even marginally embarrass them.

At that moment, they will put up every roadblock and hurdle in your path to prevent you from getting the info you seek.

If the above explanation felt at all convoluted to you, you are not alone.

This is to offer but a small insight into what Canadian journalists deal with in navigating government bureaucracy, and not just in Whistler—it is a major problem at every level of government, and encompasses organizations ranging from the RCMP to your local health authority.

Since the ransomware attack on the RMOW, two senior managers connected to the incident have left the municipality. A new council was elected. And the reporter who covered it all (yours truly) is now the editor of the newspaper. Sometimes, if you just delay long enough, the world has no choice but to move on without you.