Is the Sask. government hiding stuff behind huge info fees?

Province by Evan Radford

Data from a national audit on how Saskatchewan fares with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests shows that the Ministry of Highways has a habit of making high fee estimates when requests are sent its way.

That habit has apparently continued in the case of an ongoing, high-profile investigation by CBC’s Geoff Leo into several unusual land transactions. With help from provincial Progressive Conservative leader Rick Swenson, Leo uncovered a series of unusual land sales and purchases between two local businessmen, the Ministry of Highways and the Global Transportation Hub west of Regina.

The land is two separate parcels — 204 total acres — to be used for a highway interchange that’ll provide access to the GTH area. CBC filed FOI requests with Highways and the GTH to access e-mails, contracts and appraisals related to those purchases.

Leo and the CBC have been trying to get more information, but they’ve run into an interesting roadblock: Highways wants $69,645 to provide the information he’s asked for, while the GTH wants a staggering $111,842.50.

The 2015 National Freedom of Information Audit report, published by Newspapers Canada, suggests those figures are high. The ministry’s $69,645 estimate, for example, is 16 times higher than its highest fee estimate last year — $4,144.80 for data on work contracts.

Last year’s fee estimate was also the second-highest among all 42 fee estimates nationwide, provincially and municipally, covered in the audit.

This year’s $69,645 estimate is $14,682.50 higher than last year’s highest estimate, which sat a few dollars shy of $55,000 in the Northwest Territories department of transportation.

So what’s the deal with five and six-figure FOI estimates? Are they legitimate, or a way to hide things from the public?

No Fees Please

Fred Vallance-Jones, co-author of the report and a journalism professor in Halifax, argues such fees should be eliminated outright.

“FOI is supposed to shine a light on governments, and people can’t pay [the fees],” he says. “They become just another way to eliminate people’s right to access.”

He suggested two examples from other jurisdictions that ought to be followed.

In 2011, New Brunswick eliminated all fees associated with freedom of information requests. And at the beginning of this month, federal treasury board president Scott Brison announced Ottawa will eliminate fees associated with access to information requests, save for an initial $5 charge.

Vallance-Jones also says that fees act as deterrents to ordinary citizens looking to make FOI applications.

That, Vallance-Jones argues, hinders public access and discussion.

Rayelle Johnston has a different philosophy on FOI fees. “There’s kind of a balance there,” says Johnston, the University of Saskatchewan’s access and privacy officer.

Johnston points out that FOI requests sometimes make huge, wide-reaching requests for any and all documents related to a particular subject.

“On the other hand, if you have extremely poor record keeping and don’t even know where to start searching for something, and it takes you an extreme amount of hours to find documents, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the public to have to pay for your poor record keeping,” she says.

Johnston says she’s not familiar with the current CBC case and can’t comment on it. But she says Saskatchewan’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act allows fees to be charged to “help recoup some of the costs of doing the work,” and to deter “frivolous requests and ensuring there were proper motives behind it.”

Vallance-Jones, on the other hand, says the public shouldn’t have to pay for documents and information that it has already paid for with taxes. “Why should we have to pay for it again?”

That’s the $180,000 question.