Nova Scotia

CBRM says freedom of information is not free

Cape Breton Regional Municipality is continuing to demand a fee for information that Nova Scotia's privacy commissioner says should be released without cost. That is causing a dilemma for one resident.

Municipality continues to demand $3,500 in request for information related to port expenses

Cape Breton Regional Municipality is continuing to insist on a fee for information the Nova Scotia privacy commissioner says should be released at no charge. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Cape Breton Regional Municipality is continuing to charge a fee for information that Nova Scotia's privacy commissioner says should be released without cost.

It is causing a dilemma for one resident.

Five years ago, a client of Sydney lawyer Guy LaFosse asked CBRM for expenses related to the port, but the municipality said it would cost $43,000.

The commissioner recently got CBRM to reduce the fee substantially, but the municipality is rejecting a non-binding recommendation to waive it altogether.

LaFosse said that does not speak well about CBRM's attitude toward open government.

"The culture seems to be that we're not going to give out information that the public is entitled to, that we're going to delay things as long as we can and we're going to put the highest fees that we can think of to try and discourage people from getting this information," he said.

LaFosse appealed the initial fee to the privacy commissioner, who got it whittled down to $3,900.

'CBRM had not met its legal duty'

In her ruling in February, the commissioner also said that was still too high and the information should be provided free.

She said CBRM had not met its legal duty to assist the applicant in getting access to public information and had failed to back up its cost estimate.

In response, CBRM staff cut the cost to $3,500, but said they would not go further.

"CBRM does not agree with many of the comments contained in the [commissioner's] report and take exception to the suggestion that the municipality has poor record keeping," wrote Deborah Campbell Ryan, CBRM's clerk and freedom of information officer.

"Nor do we agree that we did not respond to the applicant openly and accurately."

The commissioner had criticized CBRM staff for using three minutes for each page as an estimate of the time needed to review and release documents, saying the general standard is two minutes at most.

Campbell Ryan said in her response that three minutes had been recommended by a member of the commissioner's office.

Deborah Campbell Ryan says CBRM staff are standing behind the fee estimate and require a deposit before the information will be released. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

She said using the two-minute estimate, the cost was lowered, but that "we are standing by the attached fee estimate and the requirement for a deposit."

LaFosse said he is surprised, given council's decision in December to waive the fee in another case.

"I would have thought, given the precedent set with the Mary Campbell FOIPOP, that council would have looked at this one and made a similar decision," he said.

LaFosse said his client can appeal, but that would cost even more than the freedom of information fee.

Sydney lawyer Guy LaFosse says his client can't afford the $3,500 fee and it would be 'ludicrous' to go to court to try to get that waived. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"To go to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia for $3,500 is rather ludicrous," he said.

That would pose another problem, LaFosse said, because his client has remained anonymous until now out of fear his job could be impacted if he revealed himself.

Going to court would require filing an affidavit and providing his identity.

Mayor Amanda McDougall said council was not involved in the latest case.

"I can't comment on why in one situation a decision was made versus another if I'm not part of that decision," she said.

CBRM Mayor Amanda McDougall says council has plans to discuss freedom of information requests, and the possibility of hiring a full-time officer, starting with budget discussions. (Cape Breton Regional Municipality/Zoom)

Council has plans to discuss freedom of information requests and the possibility of hiring a full-time officer, starting with budget discussions scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, McDougall said.

Meanwhile, LaFosse said his client has 30 days to pay the fee, drop the matter or go to court.

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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