3 strikes: Sask. government chastised again for handling of GTH document requests
Delay in responding to information requests 'unnecessary, inappropriate and unauthorized'
For the third time in three months, the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner has rebuked the provincial government for its handling of information requests related to the Global Transportation Hub land deal.
The pattern of behaviour has led one of Canada's leading experts on access to information law, Michel Drapeau, to conclude "it may not be done with malice, but it's certainly done with a total disregard for their basic obligation under the law. They don't care."
Last spring, CBC's iTeam filed a series of requests to the Ministry of Highways and the GTH for documents under Saskatchewan's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP).
In May, both organizations put CBC's requests on hold after they received a letter from Saskatchewan's provincial auditor. Judy Ferguson cautioned against releasing GTH-related documents while she was conducting an audit regarding the GTH land deal.
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The GTH wrote a letter to CBC explaining that Ferguson was concerned releasing the documents "has the potential to prejudice the important work of the auditor."
Based on that, the government agencies slammed on the brakes and stopped working on CBC's requests.
They don't seem to be accountable and answerable to any other forces except themselves.- Michel Drapeau, lawyer and access to information expert
But in reports released today, information and privacy commissioner Ron Kruzeniski said that decision "was unnecessary, inappropriate and unauthorized under FOIP."
He said the organizations should have continued to work on responding to the requests.
He said at the time of this decision to delay, "negotiations were going in a positive direction" between CBC and the government agencies.
Kruzeniski said the "decision letter disrupted negotiations and created confusion. It served no purpose."
In November, the commissioner chastised the Ministry of Highways for "excessive delays" in responding to GTH-related requests.
After reviewing all of the reports, Drapeau said this appears to be a systemic problem with the Saskatchewan government: disrespect for the commissioner and the law.
"This is an indictment of their failure to observe the basic necessity of the [freedom of information] regime. So it's quite disturbing," said the lawyer and University of Ottawa professor who is an expert on Canadian access law.
"They don't seem to be accountable and answerable to any other forces except themselves."
Drapeau said it appears to be time for the commissioner to write a special report on this "systemic issue" and bring this matter to the attention of the legislature.
Government's behaviour 'extremely troubling'
Sean Holman, a former investigative journalist who's now a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says the Saskatchewan government's actions are "extremely troubling" but not uncommon.
"Governments bet on the fact that the public isn't going to care about these kinds of issues: Issues such as secrecy, accountability, transparency," said Holman.
Withholding information from the citizenry is not a very democratic thing to do.- Sean Holman, journalism professor, Mount Royal University
He said when the law is flouted so regularly, the public's eyes can glaze over and people can start to think this is just business as usual.
Holman said that sort of complacency must be guarded against because without an open government "then we're not living in a democracy anymore."
"This is about ensuring that the political system we have is behaving within the bounds of democratic behaviour," said Holman.
"And withholding information from the citizenry is not a very democratic thing to do."
The commissioner did note that the GTH has changed its ways and had "indicated that it takes its obligations under FOIP very seriously and has been working consistently to improve."
He had no such commendation for the Ministry of Highways.
Instead, he recommended that it "review and improve its processes with regards to processing access requests in accordance with FOIP." And he requested the ministry report back to him on its progress within 60 days.
The Ministry of Highways failed to respond to our request for an interview.