Info on perks will stay public, N.L. government insists

The Department of Justice maintains that information on perks for public employees and political staffers will continue to be available, despite the minister's initial confusion on the impact of Bill 29.

After minister's initial confusion, justice department stresses that bonuses and other pay will not be withheld

Justice Minister Felix Collins and deputy minister Donald Burrage answer questions on June 11 about how Bill 29 affects reporting of perks 1:52

The Department of Justice maintains that information on perks for public employees and political staffers will continue to be available after the enactment of Bill 29, despite the minister’s initial confusion on whether the current law actually covered those payments at all.

The department issued a statement on behalf of Justice Minister Felix Collins this week saying that past practice will continue to apply.

The sole exception will be a salary range replacing specific salaries, where applicable.

Until now, the law referred to the "remuneration" of public employees and ministerial staffers being available.

The term "remuneration" has been interpreted by the Newfoundland and Labrador privacy commissioner to include everything from salary to overtime to vacation pay to work-related expenses to salary adjustments to full employment contracts.

Donald Burrage, the deputy minister of justice, says existing provisions of ATIPPA enabling public access to perks and other payments are unchanged by Bill 29. (CBC)

Legal precedents give the term "remuneration" a much broader definition than "salary."

Bill 29 changes the word "remuneration" to "salary range."

Despite the change, the justice department says the information on perks will continue to be made public.

"The interpretation about the release of information such as contracts, severance pay, bonuses, etc., will still be applied to the term salary range as it was to remuneration," Collins said in a statement provided by his department.

The department says other subsections in the part of the law dealing with personal information allow the data to be released, but would not specify exactly which ones.

Other information previously considered off-limits — including pensions, health insurance, employment insurance and income tax — will remain private.

Initial confusion

The department held a technical briefing and news conference for reporters on Bill 29 Monday, but declined to provide the actual text of the new legislation. It was tabled later that day.

Collins initially said information on things like severance pay could not be obtained under open-records laws.

"The act doesn’t refer to it at all," the minister said. "So it’s outside the act."

That statement, however, was not accurate. Reporters in the past have used the access-to-information law to obtain those details.

In fact, the former bureaucrat hired by the province to review the law discussed the issue in his report to the government.

He recommended that only an employee’s salary range should be disclosed — a recommendation the government says it accepted.

In Monday’s news conference, however, Collins continued to maintain that the data on perks fell outside the law.

He then softened his stand.

"I’m not sure if it’s addressed in the law," Collins said. "I don’t think it is."

Finally, the deputy minister, Donald Burrage, interjected.

"Those provisions of the act which enabled you to get that information now are unchanged," Burrage said.

Subsequent attempts by CBC News to find out those exact provisions were unsuccessful.

In the past, reporters have used the law to reveal things like performance bonuses and golden parachutes for senior managers at health authorities in the province.

The hotly-disputed Bill 29 — which was the subject of a round-the-clock, four-day opposition filibuster in the house of assembly — contained 25 pages of changes to the province’s access-to-information laws.

The bill passed early Friday morning, after the Tory government invoked closure to shut down debate.