10 January 2009

Freedom from Information: NL gov’t keeps lid slammed tight

The province’s score on public access to government records is boosted by the performance of municipalities across the province. But that’s not the same as the provincial government.

Its record of openness  - on the other hand  - is nowhere near as good Saturday’s news suggests. 

Of six requests for information under open records laws during a recent survey by the Canadian Newspaper Association, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador did not fully disclose in response to any of the requests.

The provincial score is boosted by the responses by municipalities across the province, all of which applied both the spirit and the letter of the access to information law to a greater extent than did the provincial government.

Provincial government departments and agencies received six requests.  Of those half met the response that no records existed.  Another was denied in full, while another was deemed a denial of access by the researchers.  Only one request was answered with a partial disclosure.

The responses fit the pattern of apparently inaccurate or false responses found recently by the Telegram

In one notorious case, the Executive Council claimed it had no records on so-called “purple files” even though the Telegram had an e-mail from the Premier’s Office – a record within the Executive Council under the access to information law – and the reporter saw such a file during an interview.

The responses to the CNA survey are astonishing and in some cases laughable:

1.  Vehicles: No records/Not my department.  The request for a “list of vehicles (including make, model, and year) available for transportation of members of cabinet and senior public servants. As well, please provide a copy of your policy on the idling of vehicles.” made to the Executive Council – the central government agency that vets all access requests yielded this answer:

Newfoundland and Labrador said it didn’t have any records on such vehicles, although the executive council office suggested filing a request to another department for an idling policy.

That’s right, rather than respond to the request and provide the information, the Executive Council told the researcher to file another access request with a line department.  And that’s after the central agency that co-ordinates all government activity claimed it had no records on vehicles available for the use of cabinet ministers senior public servants.

It took 20 days to get those responses.

2.  Road paving:  A request for information on road paving work in the province got a ludicrous response.  Specifically, the researchers asked for “[a]n electronic list of highway construction contracts including fields for the contractor,
contract value, date contract awarded and description of the work, for contracts of $100,000 or more awarded during the 2007-2008 fiscal year. Please provide the data in Microsoft Excel, Access or delimited text format.”

Provincial government departments use Excel and certainly maintain records electronically, i.e. on computers.  The department’s response, therefore,  is laughable: 

The letter from the Transportation and Public Works department in Newfoundland stated that the information “does not exist in electronic form within this department,” even though the record released was a computer printout.

The government is known to maintain detailed records on road paving  - by provincial electoral district - and political staff in the Premier’s Office have a hand in determining how much money goes to what district in the highly politicized system.  Someone has the records and likely keeps them electronically rather than with quill pen.

3.  Tasers:  A request to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary for policy on use of tasers by police did not receive any decision and was recorded as a refusal in full.

4. A request for briefing notes for the finance minister on carbon tax was denied in full.

5.  A request for  any audit conducted of physicians’ billings under the provincial medical plan earned a response of “no records.”