After many months of delay and an attempt to charge almost $1,000 to release an updated budget and timeline for the Site C dam, the B.C. government has finally agreed to provide new information about the most expensive publicly funded project in B.C.’s history.
But the public will not be privy to the information until May 30, three weeks after the provincial election, B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett’s office has informed DeSmog Canada following a Freedom of Information request.
Sean Holman, a journalism professor and freedom of information advocate, said withholding such important knowledge on the eve of an election is an unfortunate example of continued efforts by provincial governments across the country to “fortify secrecy rather than to facilitate openness.”
“We see this time and time again,” Holman said.
Last summer, DeSmog Canada made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to Bennett’s ministry.
The FOI asked for all e-mails, attachments and documents exchanged between the ministry and B.C. Hydro regarding Site C and project planning, including Site C’s most recent budget and timeline. It also asked for all e-mails and documents exchanged between the ministry and B.C. Hydro regarding Site C’s job creation figures.
Seven months, many e-mails and three appeals later, we finally got a final answer.
We can have the information free of charge — but not until May 30.
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) May 9, 2017
The government’s protracted response to our FOI does not surprise Holman, who said there is a “culture of secrecy” right across Canada, with governments routinely withholding information that is in the public interest.
“We’ve essentially created a bureaucracy whose job is to censor information before it is released to the public,” said Holman, who teaches at Calgary’s Mount Royal University and was the founding editor of the investigative political news service Public Eye.
The reason the B.C. government gave for extending a legislated due date for responding to DeSmog’s FOI is that the request involves “a large volume and/or search for records.”
How large? The bill we received last September, after narrowing our request, said it would take 13 hours to locate the information, another 13 hours to produce a record and five hours to prepare the record: 31 hours in total.
Earlier, the government had said it would cost DeSmog Canada $990 to obtain the information. After we shaved six months off the date range of our request, which originally dated to July 2015 when preliminary construction began on Site C, the government said it would reduce the fee for obtaining the records, now narrowed to an eight-and-a-half month timeframe. The revised cost was $840.
We then put forward a case for a fee waiver because we believed information about Site C should be made public, since B.C. Hydro customers will pay for the $8.8 billion project that Premier Christy Clark has vowed to push “past the point of no return.”
Under B.C.’s freedom of information law, fees for FOI requests can be waived or reduced if the request has been “the subject of recent public debate” or if they show how a public body is allocating financial or other resources.
And then the bureaucratic wheels of government spun around a few more times and tossed out an answer at the beginning of October. We could now have the same information for a bargain price: $420.
That fee still seemed far too steep, so we took our case to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, arguing that it was in the public interest to have access to information exchanges regarding Site C’s most recent budget, timeline and job creation figures. “These records will assist a public understanding of how public money is being spent and managed,” we wrote.
The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner agreed, and the Energy Ministry eventually wrote back to let us know that the whole kit and kaboodle of a FOI will finally be delivered with no fees on May 30, more than nine months after we filed our request.
Holman said it is unfortunate that British Columbians did not have access to the new information about Site C prior to the election.
“This is obviously an election issue and, in an election, information about the government and what the government has been doing becomes more valuable because it helps voters have more information when they go to the ballot box.”
Taxpayers should have ready access to information about projects like Site C in order to allow them to access “the value they are getting from this work…on their dime,” Holman pointed out.
But even though the government has agreed to release the information free of charge, don’t uncork the bubbly on May 30 to toast a small victory for access to information and transparency in B.C.
The FOI request only covers the timeframe from January 1, 2016 until the date we filed the request: August 16, 2016.
Any guesses on how many months it will take if we file another FOI asking for the same information, only this time covering the nine-month period from August 17 to mid-May 2017?