VICTORIA, B.C. – British Columbia’s premier is defending a proposed $25 fee for non-personal freedom-of-information requests despite pushback from groups including one trying to access data on COVID-19 exposures at schools.

John Horgan says there’s been an “extraordinary proliferation” of requests from opposition parties, though his own party did the same before it formed government.

However, he says it doesn’t make sense to ask a deputy minister who may received 6,000 emails a month to disclose that information monthly, rather than asking for documents that would support certain decisions.

He says voluntary disclosure is the best way forward and that B.C. would not be alone in charging a fee that applicants are expected to pay in other jurisdictions.

Citizen’s Services Minister Lisa Beare introduced a bill this week proposing a “modest” charge for anyone filing applications asking for information held by the province.

Kyenta Martins, spokeswoman Safe Schools Coalition BC, says lack of timely and complete information has prompted volunteers in the parent-run group to file freedom-of-information requests for all 60 school districts starting about a month ago.

However, she says parents shouldn’t be required to pay for information on health and safety in public schools, and applicants couldn’t afford to pay $25 for each request for information that is not available on health authorities’ websites.

“We’re asking for electronic copies of all records of confirmed cases of COVID-19 by school for the requested school districts,” she says.

“All they’re putting up is the school and the applicable dates, so we don’t know if that’s 10 cases per school or one case per school. There’s no idea really, no picture of what is happening in our education system for cases. And that really is important to families who have other health concerns, who have to be a little more careful or who just don’t want to take that risk.”

Information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy has also criticized the proposed fees, calling them a barrier for those seeking information that should be readily available.

“I am unable to understand how this amendment improves accountability and transparency when it comes to public bodies that operate in a free and democratic society. Nor is it necessary, since (the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act) already authorizes public bodies to charge access fees, to help defray the costs of responding to requests,” he says in a release.

McEvoy says people want greater accountability from governments and public institutions, and that includes access to information about decisions that affect their lives.