$180K for GTH documents 'excessive' and 'unreasonable,' says commissioner

Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner has rebuked the provincial government for demanding $180,000 for documents about the Global Transportation Hub land deal.

Ministry of Highways, Global Transportation Hub chastised for failing to consult with CBC’s iTeam

In response to CBC's request for documents related to the GTH land deal, the GTH and the Ministry of Highways sent fee estimates in excess of $180,000. (CBC News)

Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner has rebuked the provincial government for demanding $180,000 for documents about the Global Transportation Hub land deal.

Last spring, the GTH provided an estimate of $112,000, while the Ministry of Highways asked for $70,000 in response to a series of Freedom of Information requests by CBC's iTeam.

In reports directed to each agency, commissioner Ron Kruzeniski concluded "this excessive fee was an unreasonable barrier to access."

Back in November, the commissioner issued another report chastising the Ministry of Highways for its "excessive delays" in responding to GTH-related access requests. 

In March, CBC filed 13 requests to the ministry and 15 to the GTH related to various aspects of the GTH land deal.

Both agencies responded by lumping all the requests together and assessing the massive fee.

Kruzeniski found they had "inappropriately issued one estimate of costs to respond to the applicant [CBC]."

He said this was unreasonable given the diversity of the requests: Some were for a single document; others for a series of emails over a single month; while others still spanned years.

In his report on the GTH, Kruzeniski concluded: "there is one underlying issue that led to the large estimate of costs, being the GTH did not communicate with the applicant."

He added: "There is nothing routine with providing a $111,842.50 estimate of costs without first discussing the requests with the applicant."

Kruzeniski wrote virtually the identical critique of the Ministry of Highways. 

Where did Highways' large fee come from?

The vast majority of the fee assessed by the Ministry of Highways resulted from a fee it calculated for retrieving and searching electronic records: That came out to $66,000.

Without consulting CBC, the ministry concluded that in order to respond to four of the 13 requests, it needed to search all 1,034 ministry email accounts. Kruzeniski's report breaks down how officials made that calculation. 
(Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner)

The commissioner noted that the four requests generating the huge fee were all for a recent date range: December 2015 to March 2016. 

"They appear to be relatively easy to respond to given the recent time frames the applicant stated in the requests — being a little more than three months prior to the applicant filing his requests." 

Kruzeniski said officials had an obligation to discuss the requests with CBC and work to reduce fees, but they failed to do that.

The GTH offered a similar justification for its large fee, which the commissioner also dismissed as "inappropriate."

GTH, ministry defend large fees as 'common sense approach'

Both agencies used the same arguments — and in some cases the very same words — to explain why they lumped the requests together. 

They explained to the commissioner that they were using the "common sense approach" in responding to CBC's requests. 

In its written submission, the ministry explained that CBC's requests were about a common subject matter, so officials "looked to apply a common sense approach to best serve the applicant and reduce disruption within the ministry."

The GTH made a virtually identical claim. 

Government delayed responding because of election

The GTH and the ministry also explained that they had to delay responding to CBC because of the spring election, which was called as they were answering the requests. 

According to the commissioner, the ministry argued that "as with any general election, there are restrictions placed on government officials respecting who they can speak to and what they can speak about." 
Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner Ron Kruzeniski has issued reports on how the Global Transportation Hub and Ministry of Highways requested tens of thousands of dollars from CBC for documents. (CBC)

The GTH made the identical point in identical words. Both government agencies appealed to the "Guidelines for Government Communications Activities During a General Election," which state "During a general election, no government ministry shall publish in any manner any information with respect to the activities of the ministry." 

However, Kruzeniski dismissed this argument, pointing out that in the very same document, it says "Freedom of Information requests are to be handled in the routine manner."

The commissioner pointed out that since CBC filed its complaints and his office got involved, CBC's requests have been narrowed and the GTH and Highways have provided documents. 

In response to a request for an interview, the GTH sent CBC an email saying it appreciated the commissioner's work and will comply with his recommendations.

Kruzeniski praised the GTH, noting "I have seen a significant change concerning its obligations under FOIP [Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy] since receiving these requests for review."

He offered no such commendation to Highways. It failed to respond to CBC's interview request.