Beware politicians who want to restrict the flow of information

Politicians can say the darndest things from time to time; like a few weeks ago when Calgary City Councillor Ray Jones advocated

Derek Fildebrandt

Alberta Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation

Politicians can say the darndest things from time to time; like a few weeks ago when Calgary City Councillor Ray Jones advocated a massive hike to fees for filing Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. With any luck, he and other politicians who want to keep their secrets hidden won’t get the chance.

The plan to make filing Freedom of Information requests prohibitively expensive has been bubbling below the surface for over a year now. The idea is to jack up the fees on FOI requests to make them overly pricy to file, thus meaning fewer people will file them.

You see, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), journalists, opposition parties and concerned Albertans have used FOI over the last few years to expose an almost endless lineup of foul deeds inside of the Alberta government and several municipalities.

Redford’s Sky Palace? That was discovered through FOI. Tobacco Gate? Also through FOI. AHS executive billing taxpayers for his butler? FOI. Extravagant salaries and severance packages for political staff? FOI. Most of Redford’s international junkets? FOI. The financial gong show in Fort McMurray? FOI. High-income earners living in social housing? FOI. Multimillion dollar, uncompetitive contracts for major PC Party donors? Government funding for anti-oil lobbyists? The cost of ‘Building Alberta’ signs with Alison Redford’s name plastered across them? FOI. FOI. FOI.

The list goes on and on and on.

In short, Albertans would have no idea about dozens of wasteful scandals in their governments without the ability of curious citizens to obtain documents via FOI.

Some in government view FOI not as a transparency tool to hold them accountable, but as a gaping hole in the ship of state. It needs to be plugged, and the way they have quietly (or in Councillor Jones’ case, loudly) been proposing to do it is to make it too expensive to ever file these pesky information requests.

Of course, that’s not their public argument. Their casus belli is that it costs money to process FOI requests and that governments cannot afford to keep doing that. Calgary Councillor Ray Jones bemoaned the $388,000 that it costs the city every year to run its FOI department. Calgary Mayor Nenshi even went as far as to claim that those who file FOI requests are “wasting money.”

At $388,000, Calgary’s FOI department must be the leanest, meanest little slice of bureaucracy over at city hall.  Calgary’s FOI budget makes up 0.012 per cent of the city’s $3.1 billion operating budget. Put another way, the city spends 7,989 times more than the FOI budget on other things. If anything is breaking the bank at city hall, it’s surely not the small department charged with releasing information about the other 99.988 per cent of the city.

For $388,000, this little department releases an incredible amount of information to the public used by citizens to hold the city accountable. Same goes for the provincial government and other municipalities.

Some municipalities and provincial departments have already tried to shut down legitimate information requests by slapping ridiculous search fees on them. For example, the CTF filed FOI requests for the expense claims of Stephen Mandel when he was Edmonton mayor and the rest of his council. Edmonton bureaucrats came back and told the CTF that it would cost us $11,580 to get PDFs of these basic documents. Of that, the city wanted $4,630 for Mandel’s documents alone. Either he had the largest expense files in Alberta history, or somebody was trying to block the release of the information.

The CTF fought this decision with the Information Commissioner for over a year in a long appeals process and eventually won. We received the information only after Mandel was retired from the mayor’s office.

Premier Jim Prentice has pledged to introduce a new ‘Accountability Act’ in the fall sitting of the legislature. The rumor mill at the legislature is churning out word that this bill could contain changes to the FOI Act.

Changes are certainly needed to the FOI Act, but will they make information more expensive and more difficult to obtain, or will they protect the process from political interference?

Nobody knows the details of what will be in the new ‘Accountability Act’, but just keep this in mind when we finally see it: never trust a politician who tries to leave you with less information.