Saskatchewan·CBC Investigates

Commissioner rebukes government for 'excessive delays' in GTH info requests

The Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner has rebuked the Ministry of Highways for what he calls "excessive delays" in responding to a series of Global Transportation Hub-related freedom of information requests by CBC's iTeam.

Sask. Information and Privacy Commissioner says government broke freedom of information law

Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner Ron Kruzeniski has rebuked the Saskatchewan government for excessive delays in responding to GTH land deal access requests. (Samanda Brace/CBC)

The Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner has rebuked the Ministry of Highways for what he calls "excessive delays" in responding to a series of Global Transportation Hub-related freedom of information requests by CBC's iTeam.

Highways must take their obligations under FOIP more seriously.- Ron Kruzeniski, Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner

Ron Kruzeniski said ministry officials violated the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which is designed to ensure transparency and accountability of our public officials.

Months ago, CBC made a series of requests for documents about the GTH land deal. The ministry is "late by three months beyond the legislated timeframes," wrote Kruzeniski.

"Regardless of what is driving the delays, [the Ministry of] Highways must take their obligations under FOIP more seriously. The legislative assembly has passed FOIP and I expect ministries will comply with the laws passed by it. Highways has failed to do so."

Kruzeniski recommended that the ministry consider responding to the requests without charging CBC and refund the fees due to the delays.

A $69,645 problem

On March 8, the iTeam filed 13 requests to the Ministry of Highways for documents about the GTH land deal.

A month later, the ministry sent CBC a letter indicating it would cost $69,645 to fulfil those requests.

The iTeam asked the ministry to provide individual estimates for each request rather than lumping them together. That would enable CBC to narrow the requests and reduce the fees. The ministry refused.

The director of legislation and administration with the ministry of highways, Reg Cox, said "to complete individual cost estimates for each request is unwarranted and may well result [in] an increase in the fee requested by the ministry." In other words, the new bill would likely be higher than $69,645.

Cox suggested that if CBC didn't like that, it could complain to the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner, which it did.

In his report, the commissioner notes that he continues to review the $69,645 fee estimate.

Delays, delays and more delays

That kicked off a series of "excessive delays."

In May, the provincial auditor, who had been tasked with conducting an audit on the GTH land deal, wrote to the provincial government requesting that no documents be released until after her audit was complete. According to a letter from the ministry, the auditor was concerned releasing information could potentially "prejudice the important work of the auditor."
In response to CBC's request for documents related to the GTH land deal, the Ministry of Highways sent a $69,645 fee estimate. The GTH sent an estimate of $111,842.50. (CBC News)

That delayed the government's response to all GTH land deal access requests until June 30, when the auditor's report was released.

The commissioner's office began acting as an intermediary between CBC and the Ministry of Highways.

By mid-July, the ministry had agreed to provide individual cost estimates for CBC's requests. This caused the fees to drop to $2,000 from $69,645.

On July 20, CBC sent the ministry a cheque for six of those requests.

Kruzeniski wrote that by law, the ministry should have delivered all of them within four days. That didn't happen.

A month later and still nothing. On Aug. 19, Cox explained that the ministry had just gone through a reorganization and the files "aren't moving along very quickly at this time." He promised to send the documents to CBC the next week.

That came and went.

On Aug. 29, another delay: "I hope to be back on track in the next couple of days," Cox wrote.

Sept. 7: Still nothing. "This is all on me," wrote Cox. "and again I apologize."

The next day Cox called to say the documents were finally ready to be picked up.

That's when another problem emerged.

Ministry does half-job

Without asking or even informing CBC, Cox had decided to respond to just three of the six requests.

He explained that the documents from the six requests were repetitive so he decided to pick three "representative" samples and only fulfil them. He said, in his view, it wasn't worth the cost for CBC to proceed with the other three requests.

"I was simply looking to provide you the opportunity to come to that same conclusion and save the outstanding balance," Cox wrote. He explained this move was "standard practice" in his ministry.

The commissioner noted this was done without notifying CBC and he said that's unacceptable without consulting first.

Cox picked three requests that were similar to each other, which led to repetitive results.

The requests he failed to fulfil involved correspondence with private landowners and emails between his ministry and the GTH and the Ministry of the Economy.

Commissioner rules against Ministry of Highways

Cox said these final three requests would be ready in two to three weeks; however, the delays continued, so CBC requested a review by the commissioner.

Kruzeniski wrote, "Highways is not in compliance with FOIP [Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act] as they did not respond within the legislated timelines."

As a result, he recommended the ministry immediately respond to CBC's final three requests.

The ministry finally complied in early November. The records were not "repetitive" of what the ministry had previously provided. 

The ministry didn't agree with the commissioner to refund all fees to CBC but it did reduce the fees.

The commissioner also recommended that the ministry review its freedom of information processes to ensure they're hitting timelines and complying with the law, then report back to him. The ministry says it will do so.