It is no secret that there is no love lost between fellow blogger Jacqui Thompson and a handful of people at the top of Carmarthenshire County Council, and the council has fired the latest shot in its battle to silence her and her blog by branding a Freedom of Information request as "vexatious" as a justification for refusing it.
You can read the background to the request and its already lengthy history on Jacqui's blog here, but in summary the request for information on the council's dealings with Towy Community Church was first rejected by the council, then rejected again on appeal, before the Information Commissioner ruled that the council had been wrong to reject it on the grounds stated, and the process began again.
Ever resourceful, the council has combed through the Act and now hit upon Section 14 (1) which says simply that a request may be rejected if it is considered to be vexatious. The Information Commissioner has provided a handy set of guidelines as to what constitutes a vexatious request for those dealing with FOI requests here.
The first key point is that the council may not dismiss a request because it considers the person making the request to be vexatious. The council has to show that the request itself is vexatious.
Reading through the guidelines, it is hard to see how the council will be able to make its decision stand as it fails just about all of the Commissioner's tests, but the one straw it is likely to cling to is that "it may be reasonable for the authority to conclude that a particular request represents a continuation of behaviour which it has judged to be vexatious in another context and therefore to refuse the request as being vexatious".
In other words, we can expect County Hall to argue that the request for information about the council and the church is linked to the dispute which boiled over in the recent libel trial.
The problem with that is that the Commissioner says an authority should not declare a request to be vexatious if it would supply the information to someone else who was not known to it.
This raises the interesting question of whether the rejection is just part of the ongoing war between Jacqui Thompson and the Chief Executive, or whether the council is using that dispute as a pretext for refusing to disclose information it simply does not want the public to see because it may contain embarrassing revelations about how the church came to benefit from so much council money.
Freedom of Information requests to Carmarthenshire County Council are handled by Mr John Tillman, an officer in the Chief Executive's department who is unfailingly polite and, the evidence suggests, inclined to favour openness and transparency. The problem he has is not so much unreasonable, frivolous or vexatious requests from the press and public, but interference from within County Hall to prevent the release of information. In one case, for example, a senior officer put pressure on a newspaper editor to get a request for information about senior officer pay withdrawn.
My initial reaction when I read about the rejection of Jacqui Thompson's request was to hope that the press and other investigative journalists would take up the baton and submit requests for this information. After all, there has been a lot of interest in this story in the media, and there are many people in Carmarthenshire who feel very strongly about the generosity showered by the council on this particular evangelical group.
For the time being, however, a wiser course may be to let this dispute play out in the wider interests of transparency and public accountability, because what we have here appears to be an arbitrary decision which goes against the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and the way it has been implemented. This must be challenged.
Jacqui will now need to request an internal appeal, which if past performance is anything to go by will almost certainly result in yet another rejection, before taking the matter back to the Information Commissioner who may begin to wonder what on earth is going on in Carmarthen.