YORK council bosses have been rapped by a national watchdog for wrongly refusing to answer questions or release information.
City of York Council had claimed local resident Mike Hammill was being "vexatious" in requesting various documents and answers from the authority, but the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has found in Mr Hammill's favour.
Andrew White, group manager for the ICO, has ordered the council to issue new responses to seven Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by Mr Hammill August 11, or face potential High Court action.
It is the latest criticism of the council, which was recently revealed to be falling far short of national targets for responding to FOI requests on time, and which has been accused by opposition parties of excessive secrecy.
The case has emerged on the same day as the Local Government Ombudsman issued a critical report of how the council deals with complaints.
In one of his seven requests, Mr Hammill asked for details of meetings that council chief executive Kersten England attended outside York from April to November 2013, including the dates, organisations and venues involved. The council said it was a "random and banal question" and said: "No conclusion could be drawn about Ms England's performance from the information requested, whether it shows she spends a lot, or a little, of her time in the city."
The council said Mr Hammill had not indicated any trouble arranging an appointment, but Mr White said the council seemed to have assumed that was his motive, with no discussion.
Mr White said: "The Commissioner considers that there is value in this request; that being the accountability and transparency of the work schedule of the person holding the most senior position in the council."
Mr Hammill had also asked in June 2013 about payments to various bodies involved in the 2012 "Wonderland" festival in Museum Gardens. He received a partial answer after more than three months, and was told a further five months later that his remaining questions had been deemed "vexatious". The Freedom of Information act says authorities must respond within four weeks.
Mr Hammill asked questions last July relating to the Local Plan, but after ongoing correspondence failed to yield the information, his request was refused in February this year, again having been deemed vexatious.
Last August, he asked several questions about how the council complied with legislation concerning access to information and meetings. Again, the council refused his request after six months, again citing the "vexatious" clause in the Freedom of Information Act, which allows councils to withhold information.
Mr White said all Mr Hammill's requests had serious purpose and value, and said: "The Commissioner strongly believes in the value of such subjects and could to no degree class them as having no or little value."
He said some of the requests were generated by the council's "less than adequate responses" and could have been avoided had the council complied with the FOI Act. He said the requests went "to the heart of the legislation, in so much as they relate to accountability and transparency".
Mr Hammill told The Press he was delighted the ICO had found in his favour but said the council had wasted public money by dragging the issue out.
He said: "They really seem to hate me for asking these questions and it's nice to have the council properly beaten by this ICO ruling."
In its submission to the ICO, the council said Mr Hammill had sent many requests, "interspersed with complaints, accusations and abuse, but the ICO said no evidence of that was given.
Mr Hammill said: "It is scary to think taxpayers are thought of in this way. If you question something or ask about something, they immediately jump on the defensive."
Ian Floyd, City of York Council's director of customer and business support said this evening: "We’re committed to being accountable for the work we do and take seriously this feedback from the ICO.
"The council's concerns were about the disclosure of commercially sensitive information, the sharing of inappropriate personal information of individuals with whom meetings have been held, and the personal safety of a council employee.
"We felt that this series of FOI requests was vexatious, however we will of course comply in full with the ICO ruling".