Saskatchewan

From inspection to inquiry: Sask. government elevates scrutiny of Pinehouse village

The Saskatchewan government is elevating its inspection of the Northern Village of Pinehouse into an inquiry, which will include a financial audit. 

Inspection launched after privacy commissioner accused village of obstruction

Pinehouse is approximately 375 kilometres north of Saskatoon, Sask. (Mike Zartler/CBC)

The Saskatchewan government is elevating its inspection of the Northern Village of Pinehouse into an inquiry, which will include a financial audit. 

"This is not a decision that I take lightly," Government Relations Minister Warren Kaeding said in a press release. "But one that I believe will help answer some outstanding questions, and more importantly lead to greater stability within the village and the local council, something that the residents of the community deserve."

The province first announced an inspection into the village in December 2018. The inspection focused on the village's practices related to Saskatchewan's Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (LAFOIP).

The inspection also included an overview of the village's general operations and business activities, as well a high-level summary of the village's financial situation and obligations.

Saskatchewan's privacy commissioner Ron Kruzeniski called for a formal investigation into the village in November 2018. He accused the village of embarking on a sustained campaign of obstruction. 

Kruzeniski said that the village did not provide information, or provided inadequate information in a delayed manner, over a five-year period.

"No town or village should be able to flagrantly disregard or obstruct the operation of a provincial statute," he wrote.

Many of the Freedom of Information requests were filed by D'arcy Hande, a writer who was initially investigating possible connections between the village council and the Nuclear Waste Management Association.

He had also submitted a request for information on salary and expense claims for the village's councillors and mayor.

The government brought on lawyer Neil Robertson to lead the inspection into the village. Robertson has more than 36 years of experience in municipal law and working with the public sector. He submitted his report in early March.

On Thursday, the government announced it was expanding Robertson's power so he can conduct an official inquiry to explore outstanding questions identified in the report. 

Kaeding said the government will not be releasing details on those outstanding questions, but that the inquiry will examine all financial aspects in the community, including leadership salary.

"That's certainly something that their taxpayers, their members are certainly concerned about."

Kaeding said the government has appointed a supervisor, Hasan Akhtar, to work in the community until March 2020. He said the government is hopeful Akhtar can offer "some guidance and help the community get back on track and some of their management of affairs in the community."

He said Akhtar will also be responsible for ensuring the LA FOIP requests are completed.

Kaeding said he would not speculate whether laws have been broken.

"I'm going to wait until the final report and we've seen had an opportunity to review it with justice folks." 

He said there hasn't been an overwhelming number of similar instances in the province, which has 773 municipalities.

"We've had to do this seven, eight times now in the last 10 years so I don't consider this to be endemic. I do consider this to be more of an outlier," he said.

The cost of the inquiry will be put back on Pinehouse Village.

There's no fixed date on when the inquiry will be complete, but Kaeding said they've asked Robertson to be quick yet thorough.

NDP Finance Critic Trent Wotherspoon is calling on the province to release the inspection report so people can know the scope of the concerns.

The province said the full report will become public once the process is complete.

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