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Info freedom

FOI should be a last resort

FOI should be a last resort

Tim Bousquet is becoming a very lonely advocate for open and accountable government. His frustrations getting information from HRM are legendary ("Taxpayers on ice," Editorial, March 18).

One has to wonder if our councillors are aware that there is a law in Nova Scotia obliging municipal councils to be "fully accountable" to the public, and that means secrecy should apply to only a few isolated exceptions, such as personal privacy and perhaps ongoing negotiations. Our freedom of information legislation is clear on those exceptions, which it describes as "rare."

Don't our councillors know the perils that await the keeping of secrets? Perhaps they haven't heard of our MLAs' finances scandal, or the troubles with the South West Development Authority or the fuss over secrecy in the Commonwealth Games organizing group. They've certainly heard from citizens on the lack of information on harbour pollution problems.

When the HRM election was upon us I contacted every candidate, on behalf of the Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia, to ask them to pledge to embrace openness if elected. Those who ran in my electoral district were subject to a seminar on my front steps. Many responded and all said they were four square behind getting rid of secrecy on council. (The mayor and I happened upon each other awhile back and he encouraged me to keep up the good work. If it is "good work," there's little in the way of results.)

I did the same with provincial election candidates and, again, those I heard from endorsed openness and accountability and pledged to bring improvements to our freedom of information legislation. Some of them are now in government. The chief of staff to the leader of the opposition at the time, now the premier, agreed with me that our Freedom of Information Act "requires regular review to ensure it is meeting the changing and dynamic information needs of Nova Scotians."

In the same letter the promise was made to address the waiting times for more timely access. One of the new government's first decisions was to lower the application fee under the Act to $5 from $25, an important and welcome improvement. Other improvements are awaited. Waiting times must be shortened and processing fees must be lowered.

Back to Tim's problem. Given the secrecy of HRM, he must now resort to seeking the information he wants through our freedom of information legislation, a process that could well take a year, or even more. Using the FOI Act should be a last resort. Too many public bodies are using it as a first resort.

The most serious consequence of secrecy, in my view, is that it leads to voter apathy. Some 40 percent of eligible voters no longer even bother to vote. All of our politicians should be concerned about this "democratic deficit" and should work to address it without delay.

—Darce Fardy, president, Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia

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