In my last post of this series documenting my attempts to get the City of Yarra to release the information it gathers about food hygiene inspections in Fitzroy into the public domain, I suggested that I had exhausted all my options.

I was waiting for the office of the Ombudsman to complete its investigation of the City of Yarra’s use of the ‘substantially and unreasonably diverting Council Resources’ excuse to refuse to provide me with the details of the inspections. The Ombudsman thinks this job is done but they have failed.

I am still at the same point as when I wrote that post: waiting for the Ombudsman to understand the point of my request and to accurately and competently question the council as to whether it’s use of the “substantially and unreasonably diverting Council Resources” excuse against releasing details of the inspections was justified.

On Monday 24 August I received two letters. The first was from the office of the Ombudsman (dated 20 August 2009) telling me their investigation was complete and the matter is now closed. However, they have not actually investigated what they were asked to. They seem to have done nothing at all.

The second was from the City of Yarra (dated 19 August 2009) acknowledging that their use of the ‘substantially and unreasonably diverting Council Resources’ excuse “is now considered irrelevant”. They also consider the matter closed.

It is now obvious that the City of Yarra and the office of the Ombudsman are neck and neck in a stupidity race. The Ombudsman’s staff appear to have fundamentally misunderstood what I was asking them to do, despite demonstrating a clear understanding of it in their previous correspondence.

The City of Yarra is either playing dumb as a result of escaping closer scrutiny due to the Ombudsman’s incompetence or is now being deliberately obfuscatory. They too are now failing to differentiate between the two sets of information I wish to obtain.

To summarise, I requested the release to two further sections of the relevant food hygiene inspection information beyond what council originally supplied me with:

  1. the names of the businesses inspected; and
  2. the details of the inspections, ie not just whether they passed or failed but the reasons why, eg contaminated food, dirty premises, etc.

Council refused to release the business names due to privacy, and the Ombudsman ruled that it could not investigate the validity of this. It referred me to VCAT (the details are in my previous post).

Council refused to release the inspection details because the work required to compile the information would supposedly “substantially and unreasonably divert Council Resources”. I argued that this was a pathetic excuse to avoid disclosure and transparency and the Ombudsman agreed to investigate the validity of the Council’s position.

In his letter dated 20 August the City of Yarra’s Executive Manager / Freedom of Information Office Ivan Gilbert states that:

As all available information, save the above referred to deletions, have [sic] been released, the reference to ‘substantially and unreasonably diverting Council Resources’ is not now relevant.

Gilbert is factually incorrect. All available information has NOT been released. The inspection details have not been released.

Despite now admitting that the use of this excuse is, in the words of Glenn Sullivan, Director of Investigations at the office of the Ombudsman, “incorrect in the circumstances”, the council is still refusing to release the inspection details. It has no excuse for doing so and is now trying to confuse the issue by conflating the two sets of information and using the reason for not disclosing the business names to justify not releasing the inspection details.

There are no privacy concerns in releasing the inspection details. It’s simply more work. But now the too much work excuse has been eliminated by the council’s own admission that it was incorrect in using it in the first place. The council must now release the detailed inspection information.

I have emailed Gilbert at the City of Yarra pointing out his false assertion and his obfuscation. I have also emailed Sullivan at the office of the Ombudsman. I told him I am extremely disappointed that he seems to have missed the point of my request. I am concerned that his misunderstanding has undermined the focus of his investigation.

The office of the Ombudsman has not answered the question I asked it to: whether the City of Yarra was justified in refusing to release the detailed information about food hygiene inspections based on the justification of ‘substantially and unreasonably diverting Council Resources’.

I have achieved something new in this: I have proved that the council was being misleading in claiming that compiling the inspection details information would be too much effort. This is simply not true. It may require more work, but this does not amount to too much work. They are being disingenuous and they know it.

I have also, and unexpectedly, confirmed my own pessimism about the competence of the office of the Ombudsman. Their staff seem incapable of comprehending the facts of this case. The lack of professional competence of these people is infuriating. We pay these people to serve us and they can’t comprehend a series of simple and obvious facts. They clearly should not be employed in their current positions.

I am now waiting for their response. I have no expectation of achieving anything more through the Ombudsman as they are clearly incapable. The only value in their anticipated response may be a further opportunity for cynicism and sarcasm.

It is equally unlikely that this minor progression will do anything to alter the council’s attitude. They seem to have an ‘all you can eat’ attitude towards the publication of evidence of their ongoing inadequacies.

Recent attempts to look relevant, such as this August 2009 example, stink of ‘too little too late’. They did nothing about food hygiene last year, at least according to their 2008 press releases. They’ve only started to talk about the issue after I have drawn attention to it.

In their recent customer service guarantee the council promised to inspect all eateries once every six months. This promise has subsequently been deleted and replaced with a statement promising inspections every 12 months, which is the current policy. This is further evidence of their unwillingness to take constructive action to improve public health.

why am I surrounded by frickin’ idiots? Fitzroyalty vs City of Yarra – food hygiene FOI battle round six

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