DIGGING DEEPER: Grab a shovel and start digging with us

A look inside the secret files of reporter Joe Fries that he acquired through the Freedom of Information process.

FOI for Penticton hospital emails by Joe Fries

Sharp-eyed readers would have spotted in this week’s papers a small graphic at the bottom of my stories on surgery cancellation rates at Penticton Regional Hospital and the cost of a photo-op at the future home of the Okanagan Correctional Centre that encourages them to dig deeper into the online versions.

It’s impossible to understate how much the Internet has changed the news business — not always in good ways, like compressing deadlines so the rush to be first sometimes beats the need to be accurate.

But one definite improvement is the unlimited amount of space the Internet opens up for news stories that live online, in particular those accompanied by graphics, charts and other source material that might be of interest to readers but won’t fit in the print edition.

For example, whenever I write an article that relies on documents obtained through a freedom of information request, I try to post those same documents with the online version of the story so readers can learn more or even double-check my work.

One problem with that is the documents need a story with which to buddy up, and often times the records I get don’t actually result in a story.

It pains me to say the FOI process is usually a fishing expedition, since it’s taxpayers who foot the bill for the people searching for records. However, it’s also an important element of government transparency, so I make no apologies.

That said, even the best fisherman gets skunked sometimes, and more often than not I’m left with documents that contain an element of interest, but not enough for a story.

This space, however, provides a forum to put them out there. For example:

Towards the end of the months of May, June and July, I asked Ministry of Health media relations manager Kristy Anderson for updates on the approval process for the Penticton Regional Hospital expansion project that was finally announced July 30.

Getting a straight answer on where things stood was difficult, so I later submitted an FOI request to find out how exactly my questions were handled on their end.

What came back was a series of emails between me, Anderson, plus at least eight of her colleagues and higher-ups on one particular string.

Of note was a June 27 email from Health Ministry communications director Ryan Jabs, who told communications manager Carlene Thistle-Walker that Treasury Board “has approved this … we’re just waiting for their official word.”  The “this” to which he was referring was presumably the project’s business case.

Thistle-Walker then told a spokesman at Interior Health an hour later that “we are getting close with business plan approval,” and asked him to write up a news release “signalling we are moving forward.”

Meanwhile, assistant deputy minister Manjit Sidhu told Anderson that same day that “government will probably be announcing something in a few weeks, but not sure you want to say that.”

Anderson took Sidhu’s advice and emailed me a two-sentence statement that allowed only that “government is in the final stages of review,” and hoped to “share information” in the “very near future.”

I found it interesting that three people in the same ministry were all singing from different song books and gave their colleagues at Interior Health the same vague line they gave me and the public.

As promised earlier, if you want to dig deeper and see for yourself, check out the online version of this column to read the email exchanges for yourself.

Joe Fries is a reporter at the Penticton Western News