Budget refusal will cause more access-to-information delays: N.S. info commissioner

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia's information commissioner says the province's rejection of her appeal for more staff will leave citizen requests to access government documents languishing in a years-long wait-list.

"I was disheartened and disappointed to learn we did not get any additional budgeted positions, despite our four-year-long backlog of cases to review," Tricia Ralph said in a recent interview about the budget presented last week for the 2024-25 fiscal year.

Part of Ralph's role is to review complaints from citizens who are refused access to government documents.

Ralph said she asked Treasury Board last fall for eight new positions, lamenting how "anyone who makes a request for us to review a file will wait a minimum of four years, as we have about 700 files waiting to be reviewed."

A joint comment from the departments of finance and justice said when the province considers budget requests, it has to balance "many competing priorities." Steven Stewart, spokesman for the Finance Department, said in an email, "We’ll continue to consider funding requests through the budget-making process each year."

Ralph said the refusal of more funding also highlights the need to make her an independent officer of the legislature — a long-standing request that both she and her predecessor, Catherine Tully, have made. Nova Scotia remains the only province that hasn't taken this step, she said.

In a followup email to the interview, Ralph said she shouldn't have to make budget requests to the department she oversees.

"If I want to spend more than $5,000 on an expert, such as a lawyer (I do not have dedicated legal counsel), I must seek permission through the Department of Justice, even when I have sufficient funds in my budget to do so," she wrote.

If she were an independent officer of the legislature, such as the auditor general, she would be able to make budget submissions to an all-party committee of the legislature, which would make recommendations to the government, Ralph said. The recommendations could be rejected, but the opposition party would be aware.

In a recent submission to a review of the Freedom of Information Act, which is being conducted by civil servants, Ralph repeated her call to make her an independent officer of the legislature. She also asked for changes that reflect British Columbia legislation, permitting her to make requests directly to the legislature if her budget allocations "are inadequate for fulfilling the duties of the office."

The money for Ralph's office in the 2024-25 budget is $1.3 million, with funding for nine staff — the same as last year.

Ralph that said since she took on the job in 2020, her office has received added funding for an executive director and an assistant, a position previously filled by a temporary hire. The province also added three two-year term positions that are set to expire shortly.

During the 2021 provincial election, Premier Tim Houston pledged to go further than the former Liberal government's promise to carry out a review of the Freedom of Information Act and make the changes that successive privacy commissioners have asked for.

"A Progressive Conservative government is one that will have the courage to be held accountable by the people," Houston said during the campaign. "That means giving order-making ability to the commissioner."

He has since backed away from that idea, which would have given Ralph the power to compel the government to follow her findings unless it wanted to contest them in court. Right now, the commissioner makes recommendations, but the government is not bound by them.

Meanwhile, Ralph said the four-year backlog is having a demoralizing effect on her existing staff and on the public.

"Some applicants don’t even bother to request a review because they know that by the time the office can work on their file, the information will no longer be useful," she wrote in her submission to the committee reviewing the Freedom of Information Act. "This is appalling."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2024.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press