The curious case of file MPA/007/2012
Province classifies study as secret advice, even though report is extensively quoted online
An entire 2009 Newfoundland and Labrador government report — apparently dealing with traffic, land use and demographic trends on the Avalon Peninsula — is now classified as secret policy advice, even though a consultant published large tracts of information from it last year.
For weeks, the Department of Municipal Affairs has declined say exactly why the entire report is now blocked from disclosure.
It would only say that the whole document falls under an exemption of the province’s access to information laws covering policy advice or recommendations.
That exemption is discretionary, which means the government can release the document if it wants to.
The department blew the deadline to respond to a CBC News request by nearly a month, and would only say the request had been refused, without providing detail.
That simple refusal appears to contradict a Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court ruling from last year.
In that case, Justice Carl Thompson concluded that just quoting sections of the act without any explanation was not good enough.
Thompson ordered the government department in question to provide further reasons for its decision not to release the information in that case.
Presented with that Supreme Court decision, the Department of Municipal Affairs said four weeks ago that it would place the matter under review.
The review of that original request — file number MPA/007/2012 — is apparently still ongoing.
On Monday night, the department issued a statement saying the document is "still a work in progress," even though it dates back to at least 2009. "Releasing it would adversely affect the planning process," the statement noted.
The government statement does not address why simple factual information already on the internet is prohibited from release.
Last year, Metrobus commissioned Dillon Consulting to study its market options. The entire tome is posted on the St. John’s transit system’s website.
That study quotes extensively from the now-secret Department of Municipal Affairs report.
Among the information the consultant attributes to that report, which the government now classifies as too sensitive to reveal:
- "St. John’s still has 962 hectares of undeveloped land available for future residential development, while Mount Pearl has developed more than 95 per cent of the land it has zoned for residential use and has only 33 hectares remaining. Conception Bay South and Paradise have 1,955 hectares of land zoned for residential development that remains undeveloped." (page 33)
- "The largest population group in the Northeast Avalon Region has moved from 20-24 in 1986 to 40-44 in 2006. It is expected to move to the 50-54 group by 2016 and 60-64 by 2026. The ‘60 and over’ population has seen a striking growth rate from 12 per cent of the total population in 1986, to 17 per cent in 2006 with expected further growth to 23 per cent by 2016 and 30 per cent by 2026." (page 54)
- "An apartment market exists in St. John’s and the central area contains a significant concentration of duplexes (historic single family dwellings divided into two units)." (page 55)
- "Two thirds of population growth in the Northeast Avalon Region between 2001 and 2006 occurred in Paradise and Conception Bay South and such residential growth is expected to continue. At the same time, employment opportunities and major community infrastructure is located in St. John’s. This creates an increasing, car-oriented travel pattern between St. John’s and Paradise/Conception Bay South." (page 105)
It is not clear how the consultant managed to obtain the Department of Municipal Affairs report in question.
CBC News contacted Dillon Consulting with a list of questions about the government report, but didn’t receive any answers.
The Department of Municipal Affairs says the consultant likely obtained the report from another level of government.
On Monday, the Tory government announced a series of amendments to the province’s access to information laws, adding a laundry list of new restrictions on what records can be released to the public.
Municipal Affairs file number MPA/007/2012 pre-dates those changes, which will restrict access further.
Before taking office nearly nine years ago, the Progressive Conservatives campaigned on a platform of government openness and transparency, championing open-records laws and promising to make those laws stronger.
"A comprehensive and effective freedom of information act is the best safeguard against the tendency of governments to descend into official secrecy and elitism," the 2003 Tory policy document noted.
But since taking office, the Tories have worked to erode the act, filing lawsuits to restrict the powers of the watchdog tasked with investigating citizens’ complaints, and adopting narrow interpretations of the information that can be released to taxpayers.