As the Oct. 24 municipal election approaches, my Star colleagues have been running a series of articles that ask a really important question: “Toronto, can’t we do better?” They’ve catalogued some places where the city feels broken or services that aren’t working, touching on topics like busted-up street litter bins, a shortage of city planners, theft-prone bike rings and more.

But things might actually be worse than they seem. Because city hall under Mayor John Tory isn’t just plainly struggling when it comes to delivering reliable infrastructure or providing quality public service — data suggests they’re also struggling to provide basic transparency about Toronto’s problems.

There’s a broken system layered on top of all this broken stuff. It’s a real double whammy.

Data provided in annual reports by Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) shows the city is well below average when it comes to responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in a timely manner.

The FOI system is an important tool of government, allowing anyone to request information related to how governments operate and spend public funds. But in 2021, the city managed to fulfil just 55 per cent of FOI requests in the 30-day window set by provincial legislation.

That ranks Toronto second to last among the ten municipal institutions that received the most requests last year, and puts the city way below the provincial average of 80 per cent for municipal institutions.

Factoring in what the IPC calls “extended compliance” — a mechanism that allows governments to get an extension on the 30-day deadline — only marginally improves Toronto’s FOI stat line. Even with extra time, the city still only managed to hit their extended due date for FOI requests 62 per cent of the time across 2,860 completed requests last year.

If these were academic grades, scores like that would have teachers writing “please see me” in red ink at the top of assignments.

And this isn’t a blip. Toronto’s FOI response rates have been drifting down for years. In the seven years of data available for years prior to Tory’s election as mayor in 2014, Toronto averaged a compliance rate of just under 80 per cent. Not stellar, but passable.

But under Tory, the trend has been bad. In Tory’s first term, the IPC reported an annual average compliance rate of 68 per cent for Toronto. In the first three years of Tory’s second term, the 30-day compliance rate has fallen to a dismal average of 53 per cent.

That’s in part due to a city hall decision in 2020 to effectively shut down work on most FOI requests, citing the pandemic. The city only managed to fulfil 38 per cent of requests within the 30-day deadline that year. But, curiously, most other municipal institutions didn’t feel the need to take such extreme measures — the average municipal compliance rate with the FOI deadline that year was 78 per cent.

I point all this out not because I’m nursing some sort of media industry grudge. Yes, journalists rely on the FOI system to break stories, but it’s not just reporters who make FOI requests. The city’s public registry of FOI requests reveals hundreds of requests from members of the public, businesses and researchers, on matters like property line dispute, noise complaint investigations and business licenses.

And increasingly, FOIs are used by activists and advocacy groups who are trying to get information about how the city is serving its residents.

It was one such advocate who tipped me off to the city’s dismal IPC numbers. A.J. Withers has been working with other housing advocates to uncover details about 2021’s violent clearing of park encampments, the accuracy of statistics the city publishes about shelter bed availability and other issues affecting the city’s unhoused population. But FOI requests submitted by Withers and others have been very slow in coming, with the city often telling them that it will take months to deliver on relatively straightforward requests for copies of emails and documents.

From what I’ve seen, most of the information they’ve been requesting, like strategies related to encampments and winter shelter plans, should already be public.

Certainly freeing that information — and all information relevant to what ails this city — shouldn’t require multiple requests, appeals to the IPC and multiple-month delays. It’s bad enough that Toronto feels broken. Making it hard to learn about how and why things are broken is just adding insult to injury.

Matt Elliott is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @GraphicMatt