Saskatchewan's Highways minister is defending his ministry's record of providing information on its projects, despite not following Information and Privacy Commissioner recommendations or even reading the commissioner's reports on his ministry's actions.
"I just think that our ministry has been very responsible and respective of the FOIs [freedom of information requests]," Dave Marit said.
That's despite the fact he told CBC he hasn't read any of the Information and Privacy Commissioner's five reports condemning his ministry on its handling of requests for information about the Global Transportation Hub.
The leader of the Opposition, Trent Wotherspoon, said that's outrageous.
"There's a thing called ministerial responsibility. He's the minister responsible for [Highways] and he's making a mockery of that responsibility and of accountability," Wotherspoon said.
Highways withholding CP agreement
The issue was raised by the NDP in the legislature Wednesday, when Wotherspoon asked why the government was refusing to release a contract with CP for the purchase of land at the GTH.
CP was the first tenant of the GTH. In 2009, the Ministry of Highways signed an agreement that saw the company buy 120 hectares of land and move its facilities out of downtown Regina to a new location where the GTH now sits.
For months, Premier Brad Wall has insisted that "taxpayers are making money" at the GTH, in the wake of the ongoing GTH land deal controversy. But Wotherspoon said that's far from clear, because the government hasn't been transparent.
Wotherspoon said the public needs to know what CP paid for the GTH land in order to do a real cost-benefit analysis.
The NDP asked Highways for that agreement and the ministry refused. The Information and Privacy Commissioner reviewed the matter and recommended the government make the entire document public.
Marit said the government has refused out of "respect" for CP's wishes.
"CP said they did not want the information released," said Marit. "This is a commercial deal and it's a competitive world they're in, and we've got to respect that decision that CP has made."
CP claimed the information in the agreement is commercial, financial and technical, and therefore shouldn't be released.
The commissioner rejected all of those claims.
"I am not persuaded that the information in these documents would qualify as financial, commercial or technical information," he said. "The record simply outlines what commitments each party has made with respect to achieving this common project."
In response to the commissioner's recommendation — which Marit hasn't read — the minister said the government still decided to side with CP.
"We could be held to litigation issues if that's released without permission of CP, so we're going to honour their request and not release the information," Marit said.
The CBC submitted the same request to the ministry late last year and was denied. In that instance, the commissioner came to the same decision: release the documents.
Series of scathing reports
The Ministry of Highways has consistently dragged its feet on information requests — a fact the commissioner has pointed out time and again after CBC filed complaints about the delays.
Here's a summary of those reports:
- Nov. 9, 2016: Commissioner recommends the ministry release a land sale agreement with CP for property at the GTH. The ministry refuses to release the document.
- Nov. 10, 2016: Commissioner finds the ministry was more than three months late in responding to CBC's requests related to the GTH. He described the delays as excessive and a violation of the law. "Highways must take their obligations under FOIP [Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy] more seriously. The Legislative Assembly has passed FOIP and I expect that ministries will comply with the laws passed by it. Highways has failed to do so," he wrote.
- Jan. 5, 2017: Ministry proposes to charge CBC $70,000 for a series of 13 information requests. The commissioner found the ministry failed to consult with CBC as it is required to do. He also found the ministry's "excessive fee was an unreasonable barrier to access."
- Jan. 17, 2017: Commissioner finds the ministry had delayed its response to information requests in a way that "was unnecessary, inappropriate and unauthorized under FOIP."
When asked why he hadn't read any of the commissioner's reports, Marit responded, "I guess that's where I trust my deputy minister and my ministry staff to look after the FOIs."
But Saskatchewan's information and privacy act says, ultimately, the minister is in charge and responsible for ensuring the act is followed.
'I think we've been more than fair,' says minister
In the government's first comments on the information requests and the commissioner's reports, Marit defended the approach taken by his officials with regards to the high fees.
"I think we've been more than fair," he said.
In fact, he said if people want access to government documents, they should have to pay the entire bill.
"Who should bear the cost of that? Should the taxpayer bear the cost? I don't think they should. I think whoever's requesting the FOIs should be bearing the cost," Marit said.