Tourism minister does about-face on release of Parlee Beach emails

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New Brunswick's tourism minister has quickly reversed himself and is no longer trying to block the release of Parlee Beach emails requested by CBC News.

John Ames told the legislature Tuesday his department will release the park manager's emails from last August, when water quality problems became publicly known.

Last Friday, Ames invoked a rarely used section of the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act to ask for permission to ignore the CBC's request for the emails.

The request was for all emails written in August 2016 by then-Parlee Beach park manager Pierre Niles, a provincial employee.

Ames asked Information Commissioner Anne Bertrand for permission to disregard the request under Section 15(b) of the act, which says "frivolous or vexatious" requests can be ignored if the commissioner agrees.

"We do believe that fishing for information is not a legitimate exercise of the right of access," Ames wrote.

'Interests of transparency'

Tuesday afternoon, Ames told the legislature that "in the interests of transparency" he'll release the emails "in this particular case."

But Ames's explanation contradicted what his letter said.

He told the legislature he wanted his department to avoid having to process a request for emails that had already been requested earlier.

"My department was concerned that releasing all emails regardless of subject matter could create a precedent in the future that would paralyze the department if requests for all emails on all subjects were made that could take countless hours to review and comply," he said.

But Ames's March 24 letter clearly cites Section 15(b) of the law. A separate section, 15(c), allows the department to ignore requests for "information already provided to the applicant."

Last summer, CBC News requested Niles's August 2016 emails dealing with water quality, but the new request, on Feb. 23, was for all his emails last August.

Mistakes in water samples

The period covered by the request is when the government says beach staff made mistakes in testing water samples, leading to fewer "poor" ratings than would have been the case.

Ames also said Tuesday he wrote to Bertrand "not to start an investigation but to seek her opinion on whether or not this was a real risk. Unfortunately I was not clear enough in my information request and the commissioner began a formal review."

But his letter explicitly said he was seeking permission to block the request.

Ames apologized Tuesday "for any confusion caused by this matter."

Bruce Fitch sees 'a mess'

Progressive Conservative MLA Bruce Fitch called the situation "a mess" and the latest snafu in a case that's been causing headaches for the Liberals for months.

"These people are the masters of their own fates," he said, suggesting Ames didn't have permission from Premier Brian Gallant to try to quash the CBC request.

"Obviously, someone got to him on the weekend and said 'You better release those emails.'"

The minister did not meet with reporters to answer questions later in the afternoon. Instead, Environment Minister Serge Rousselle tried to explain the reversal.

Rousselle said officials were worried that because the CBC hadn't narrowed the request to a specific subject, it would take a lot of time and resources to provide the information.

He tried to argue to reporters that Ames hadn't been refusing the request. But when it was pointed out Ames was trying to get the request thrown out, Rousselle said the wording of the minister's letter was "not perfect."

He added: "There's nothing wrong, I guess, with journalists' fishing expeditions."