Nova Scotia

CBRM gives up, waives $43K access-to-information fee

Cape Breton Regional Municipality is reversing its stance and waiving the charge for a five-year-old freedom of information request that the Nova Scotia privacy commissioner has said likely included the "highest fee estimate ever issued in the history of the province."

Mayor Amanda McDougall says person seeking information has waited 5 years and it's time to move on

Cape Breton Regional Municipality has given up and is waiving the fee in a five-year battle over a $43,000 access-to-information request. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Cape Breton Regional Municipality is giving up and waiving the charge for a five-year-old freedom of information request that the Nova Scotia privacy commissioner has said likely included the "highest fee estimate ever issued in the history of the province."

Sydney lawyer Guy LaFosse, whose client was asked to pay more than $40,000 for documents he requested under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP), said he was pleased CBRM changed its mind.

"Hopefully, it shows a new vision for the municipality and that we will have transparency going forward, which we didn't have under the previous administration," he said.

In 2016, LaFosse's client sought port-related expense details for the mayor at the time, Cecil Clarke, and a couple of employees.

The municipal clerk's office initially wanted $43,000 to dig up the records, but the province's information officer got that whittled down to $3,500.

In her report in February, information and privacy commissioner Tricia Ralph said the fee estimate was "inflated and inaccurate" and said CBRM had failed to fulfil its legal duty to help someone gain access to public information.

'Yep, do it, release the information'

She recommended the municipality issue the records at no charge.

Staff initially ignored that recommendation, saying the fee estimate was reasonable due to the amount of time needed to gather and review the documents to ensure no one's privacy would be breached by their release.

In an interview on Thursday, Mayor Amanda McDougall, who replaced Clarke in last fall's municipal elections, said she spoke with the chief administrative officer and asked staff to reconsider.

"This is something that the CAO is actually able to go to the clerk's office and say, 'You know what, we can just issue this. We've been advised from the privacy officer, yep, do it, release the information.'

"It's taken five years. I think just that in itself, you know, we want to move forward. We want to do better on this. Let's let go of the past, make sure things are done and start fresh."

LaFosse has said his client has remained anonymous out of fear for his job.

Late Thursday, the lawyer said his client didn't yet know CBRM is waiving the fee.

Sydney lawyer Guy LaFosse says his client will likely be 'delighted' to hear CBRM is finally waiving the fee and will be releasing the documents he requested at no charge. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"I'm sure he will be delighted to hear the news," LaFosse said. "It's been a long haul."

McDougall said staff will start gathering the records and release them as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, council approved its operating budget for the coming year on Thursday.

Earlier this year, McDougall said hiring a full-time FOIPOP officer would be considered during budget talks, but the funding was not included in the approved budget.

Following budget talks, Mayor Amanda McDougall says a consultant will recommend hiring a full-time FOIPOP officer or suggest ways staff can better deal with information requests. (Cape Breton Regional Municipality/Zoom)

The mayor told CBC News a consultant is already working on recommendations to streamline CBRM's document retention process and has been asked to include advice on how staff should handle access-to-information requests.

The consultant may recommend hiring a full-time officer, or may suggest ways staff time can be better used to deal with access-to-information requests, she said.

During budget talks, CAO Marie Walsh said various departments need more staff, but resources are limited.

However, she said, council can always set priorities.

"If the direction is to hire a FOIPOP officer, then we'll find the money in the budget somewhere," she said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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