Nova Scotia

Transportation minister says ferry fees, like Coke recipe, need to remain secret

Lloyd Hines made the comments a day after Nova Scotia's privacy commissioner called on his department to make public the management fee and potential bonuses paid to Bay Ferries for operating the CAT ferry service between Yarmouth, N.S., and Maine.

Privacy commissioner calls for release of management fee paid to Bay Ferries

Bay Ferries has operated the CAT ferry service between Yarmouth and Maine since 2016. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Nova Scotia's transportation minister says transparency can be a difficult balance when it comes to the "eternal struggle that government has around the proprietary information" of private businesses.

Lloyd Hines made the comments a day after Catherine Tully, the province's privacy commissioner, released a report calling on his department to make public the management fee and potential bonuses paid to Bay Ferries for operating the CAT ferry service between Yarmouth, N.S., and Maine.

"We end up getting beat up over it all the time, but we do have to respect the fact that these are agreements that are made with people that we do business with and, in the world of business, information is very secretive," said Hines, who noted the formula for Coca-Cola has never been revealed.

The Progressive Conservatives and reporters from AllNovaScotia.com and Global filed freedom-of-information requests to get the information in 2016 after the province signed a 10-year contract with Bay Ferries. When their requests were denied, the parties appealed to Tully's office for a review. The full process took 2½ years.

In her ruling, Tully chided the department for trying to add a second argument for withholding the information more than two years into the process.

"It means that the original response was neither open, nor accurate," Tully writes.

Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines says he's leaving it to department officials to deal with a ruling from the province's privacy commissioner. (CBC)

The department argued it couldn't release the information because it could be commercially harmful to Bay Ferries by ultimately revealing the total costs to operate the service. Tully disagreed.

"I find the evidence establishes that the only information that would be disclosed if the base management fee were released to the applicants is the base management fee."

She likewise disagreed with the suggestion that releasing the information could cause financial damage to the province because Bay Ferries only signed a contract on the basis the management fee would remain secret, and no other potential operator would agree to a deal to the contrary.

Noting the province can't contract out of its obligations to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Tully also pointed to the fact the management fees Bay Ferries receives for other services it operates have been public. In fact, Tully found the department could not provide any concrete evidence to back up any of its arguments.

Hines said he couldn't say why the management fee for the CAT would need to be handled any differently than the examples Tully cited.

"I'm not familiar with the file," he told reporters in Halifax. "I haven't been briefed on it and I don't expect to be."

'Figure should be made public'

Hines said he hasn't seen Tully's report and he's leaving the matter to senior officials within his department to handle.

Tory justice critic Tim Halman said the answers from the minister fall well short of what he wanted to hear. Halman called on the government to release the fee information.

"This is a piece of information I believe Nova Scotians — taxpayers — have a right to know," he said. "The privacy commissioner has indicated that figure should be made public."

About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca