'Not rocket science:' CTF pushes Sask. government for public documents website

·3 min read

More than a year after the provincial government pitched it, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) is still waiting to see a public website that publishes municipalities’ basic financial information.

“Alberta and Ontario post municipal documents and hundreds of First Nations communities provide this transparency. The Saskatchewan government already has financial statements from every municipality — it’s time to put them online so that everyone can hold their local leaders accountable,” CTF prairie director Todd MacKay said in a recent news release.

In December 2019 then-Government Relations minister Lori Carr told the Leader-Post she expected such a web portal to launch this year, saying it would centralize access to public accounts for all of the province’s 775 local governments.

Government relations spokesperson Shaylyn McMahon said this week the ministry “is considering options for an online system where municipal finances would be publicly available, including ... on Saskatchewan.ca.”

MacKay acknowledged 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic likely left the province scrambling on some fronts with unprecedented workloads.

McMahon alluded to that in her response to the Leader-Post, saying project timelines needed adjustment “as the ministry’s focus was on supporting municipalities through the pandemic.”

But MacKay underscored it’s fairly simple to publicly post “basic PDF (portable document format) files” to the web. “It’s not rocket science,” he said.

Alberta’s municipal affairs ministry has a searchable online database, which allows users to find a municipality’s audited financial statements and its tax rate bylaw for a given year.

The Municipal District of Pincher Creek, a region west of Lethbridge and north of Waterton Lakes National Park, has PDF files available for download from 2015 to 2020.

A taxpayer there could see, for example, the municipal district spent $319,987 on waste management in 2019, $22,113 less than what it had budgeted.

Ontario posts downloadable Excel spreadsheet files for each municipality through its Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Some documents go back to 2012.

In Saskatchewan, McMahon said the public can still get "a municipality’s financial statements directly from municipal administration offices. This will continue to be an option for accessing municipal financial statements.”

Her ministry didn’t address questions about when or if said data would available online this year.

A joint-newsroom investigation in 2019 from the Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPhoenix found 429 of Saskatchewan’s 775 local governments (55 per cent) have websites to communicate with ratepayers. The rest did not.

When the newspapers checked back with some of those local governments in June, they found 14 had either launched a website or were in the process of building one.

The 2019 investigation also found there are no provincial regulations outlining how much local governments can charge a person to release public documents. Instead, they have to come up with their own policies, or in some cases create fees on a per-case basis.

One municipality invoiced the newsrooms for $2,200 for a basic document request.

“This isn't a tough issue,” MacKay said. “We're asking for a website with a bunch of PDFs …when the province has these documents and the public has the right to see them, we can connect the dots.”

eradford@postmedia.com

Evan Radford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Regina Leader-Post, The Leader-Post