Sask. government charging $180K for access to GTH land deal documents
Access expert says ‘unthinkable’ fees are the highest he has ever seen
One of Canada's leading access to information experts says he's never seen anything like the massive fee estimates CBC's iTeam recently received from the Global Transportation Hub and the Ministry of Highways for access to information requests.
Together, their bill for a series of document requests about the controversial GTH land deal was in excess of $180,000.
"I find the cost request totally over the top and nonsensical," said Drapeau. "It's unthinkable to be asking this kind amount."
At the beginning of March, the iTeam submitted a series of access requests for emails, contracts and appraisals related to the GTH's controversial purchase of 204 acres of land back in 2014.
The GTH said CBC's 15 requests would result in 9,000 pages which would cost $111,842.50 to prepare.
The Ministry of Highways estimated that there were just 500 pages responsive to CBC's 14 requests. Its estimate was $69,645. That works out to $139.29 per page.
The high fees have prompted CBC to complain to Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner. That office has confirmed that negotiations are underway with both entities to reduce the scope of the requests and thereby reduce the fees.
Drapeau said these massive bills raise serious concerns.
"What is it that these two organizations individually and together are so determined not to release by putting such exaggerated fees?" Drapeau wondered.
"Keep pushing because you're on to something."
'I'm surprised there'd be any cost at all associated with it': Drapeau
Drapeau reviewed CBC's requests to both organizations and concluded they "tend to be very pedestrian, very targeted and very limited in scope."
Some requests were for specific documents, like appraisals or contracts. Others were for correspondence over a period of a few days while others requested a wider range of documents stretching back as far as 2012.
What is it that these two organizations individually and together are so determined not to release by putting such exaggerated fees?- Michel Drapeau , lawyer and access to information expert
In Drapeau's view, the requests were limited enough that he is "surprised there'd be any cost at all associated with it."
He said CBC's approach of filing several requests targeting a range of areas and time frames is "the way a professional, experienced researcher, an experienced ATI (Access to Information) user use the act."
In CBC's case, the GTH and the Ministry of Highways lumped all of the requests together, rather than providing separate estimates. Drapeau said that makes it virtually impossible for the requester to narrow the request and thereby reduce fees.
He said public bodies shouldn't lump requests together without the permission of the requestor.
"I would be against and I would complain against anyone wanting without my permission and advice and consultation."
GTH and Ministry of Highways working together
Drapeau said it appears the Ministry and the GTH were working together in their response to CBC's requests.
He notes the wording of their responses, their fee structure and high estimates are very similar.
"If it is a coincidence, in this case, it's a miracle and it should be reported to Rome."
Drapeau said while it's not a problem for government agencies to consult with one another when fulfilling requests, he said in this case it's the apparent goal that causes him concern.
"Their concerted effort is not at assisting you to secure your right of access to information. It's basically how can they present a united front."
Drapeau said the GTH and the Ministry of Highways must have known that their fee estimate was prohibitively expensive, and was, in effect, a denial of access.
"They are obviously, each one of them, prepared to endure and to put up with some ridicule in the public domain and go to that extreme so as not to have to release the records in a timely fashion," Drapeau said.
GTH and Highways defend fees
Richards said the fees were high because the requests required some searches going back years. He said that meant the GTH had to ask the government's Information Technology Office to conduct the searches.
The ITO's estimate to search the GTH's 26 computer accounts was $100,160. Its estimate to search 1,034 accounts with the Ministry of Highways was $66,100.
"I'm not a computer guy," explained Richards. "I don't understand what they have to do in terms of their searches but based on the information that was in there and the breadth of time they'd have to go back to 26 different tapes or whatever."
They obviously don't take their obligations under the freedom of information act quite seriously.- Michel Drapeau , lawyer and access to information expert
In Richard's letter to CBC he said "if you require assistance to narrow or redefine the scope of your request in an effort to reduce fees or if you have any questions please call me."
So CBC asked if he would break down the estimate, request by request, so CBC could know what each of the requests cost and narrow the scope.
"The word I'm getting back is that because the subject matter are all so interrelated it's pretty close to all one subject they have to do such a broad search to get all of the information that they really can't break it down," Richards said.
"That's what I'm being advised that the cost is."
In its letter to CBC, the Ministry of Highways also offered to help narrow the request in order to reduce fees.
However, when asked, Reg Cox, the director of the legislation and administration services branch, said because the requests relate to "common subject matter," he would be unable to help.
In fact he said if he re-assessed the fees the cost may go up.
"To complete individual cost estimates for each request is unwarranted and may well result [in] an increase in the fee requested by the ministry."
Both Cox and Richards suggested CBC should take its complaint to Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy commissioner. CBC followed that advice.
Drapeau said the way these agencies have handled the requests shows "they obviously don't take their obligations under the freedom of information act quite seriously. It's an open challenge."
But he said ultimately it will be futile, because the law is on the side of those seeking access to public documents.