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Monday, November 19, 2012

FOIPOP expert slams Dexter government over IBM deal

Former freedom of information officer Darce Fardy says "information delayed is information denied."

Posted By on Mon, Nov 19, 2012 at 11:53 AM

click to enlarge Darce Fardy.
  • Darce Fardy.
"There can be no good reason” for the Dexter government’s refusal to release documents related to the recently announced IBM deal, says Darce Fardy, Nova Scotia's foremost expert on the province's Freedom of Information law. The documents spell out the financial and other details of the deal, and are of interest to government watchdogs, media, opposition parties and citizens who want to assurance that the deal is on the up and up.

The Coast wrote about the secret documents last Thursday, and Fardy contacted us to say he had written a statement decrying the government's secrecy.

At issue are three documents: The contract that transfers the province’s SAP operation to IBM, an agreement awarding payroll rebates to the company and an agreement between IBM and Nova Scotia Community College. In the past, similar documents have been routinely released to the media without delay.

In the case of the IBM documents, however, The Coast was told to file a formal Freedom of Information request. We did file that request, but that process can take years to play out.

“Making contracts public should be part of a government’s routine disclosure policy,” says Fardy's statement.

“It’s not unreasonable to suspect that the requirement for a formal application is a stalling tactic,” continues Fardy. “What is said about justice can be applied  here: Information delayed is information denied... The [Coast’s] request is clear and the contract has been completed.  There can no good reason to keep it private.”

No one is more familiar with the province’s freedom of information law than Fardy. After a career in journalism—starting as a reporter in Newfoundland, and ending as CBC’s Head of Network TV Current Affairs—Fardy served as Nova Scotia’s freedom of information and protection of privacy review officer from 1995 to 2006. He is now president of the Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia, an organization that works for better use and implementation of freedom of information laws.

Fardy’s complete statement follows:

Fifteen years ago Justice F.B. William Kelly of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, in a case involving an attempt by the contractor to prevent the disclosure of the contract for construction on Highway 104, had this to say: “The obvious danger (of keeping the contract private) is the use of`commercial information as a shield to keep from the public the information necessary to assess government acts.”

In a case heard in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in 1997, Justice William Kelly described as the “basic” purpose of our Freedom of Information Act is “to ensure the public has the information necessary  to make an informed assessment of the performance of its government institutions*.”

Making contracts public should be part of a government’s routine disclosure policy.  

All signed contracts should appear on a government website. A company doing business with our elected representatives cannot dictate that signed contracts be kept from the public. In this case the government has not refused to provide a copy of the IBM contract to The Coast.  But it has asked the paper to file an application for the contract under our Freedom of Information Act. 

It’s not unreasonable to suspect that the requirement for a formal application is a stalling tactic.   What is said about justice can be applied  here: Information delayed is information denied.   Experience has shown that it could take more than a year for a formal application for access to run its course through the application and appeal process, if there is a request for review by the independent review office. I don’t believe the drafters of this Act, or the members of the legislature who unanimously approved it, foresaw that the process would be so long that citizens would choose not to exercise their right of access to government records. In the words of the Act, exceptions to disclosing information should be “limited." The purpose of the Act is clear. “... to ensure that public bodies (read governments and other public bodies) are fully accountable to the public.”  Those aren’t my words.  That’s what our legislature wanted.

The request is clear and the contract has been completed. There can no good reason to keep it private.

*Atlantic Highways Corporation v. Nova Scotia , 1997 (02/28/97)

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