Hooray for Open Government!

I have been debating how to mark Open Government Week in Nova Scotia (May 7-11).

Sitting in the graveyard behind St. Patrick’s Church in the rain with a 40-ouncer of Captain Morgan was my first idea, but I don’t like watery rum and frankly, I always knew the week would be honored more in the breach than the observance in this province. (Thank you, Sean Howard, for reminding me of that excellent expression which I’ve stolen without a blush from your column this week.) In fact, as we kicked off our celebrations on Monday, the province’s access to information website looked like this:

 

 

Yes, still shuttered after the data “breach” that wasn’t.

But as sometimes happens in these cases, the answer to my dilemma occurred when I was preoccupied by something entirely different. It struck while I was looking for information on the Port of Sydney website and noticed that the Port Board has not posted minutes from a meeting since March 2017.

If you will recall, the Port Board consisted for two years of the Mayor and four councilors with former CBRM CAO Michael Merritt serving as chair. Strictly speaking, according to the Port of Sydney Development Corporation’s Articles of Association, the Mayor and councilors should not have been on the board, but the articles contained a notwithstanding clause allowing them to serve on an “interim board” for an indefinite period of time.

March 2017 was the interim board’s last meeting — the next month, it was replaced by the official board, made up of representatives of the public:

Jerry Gillis (Chair)

Lucia MacIsaac (Secretary)

John Anderson (Treasurer)

John Khattar

Elizabeth Brunet

John Strasser

Owen Fitzgerald

Alyssia Jeddore

Richard Paul

The arrival of the new board was to mark a new era of transparency and accountability at the Port of Sydney. Why then, I wondered, were there no minutes posted from the new board’s meetings?

I asked Port of Sydney CEO Marlene Usher about that this week, and she told me in an email:

[I]t was a board decision early in their mandate that the minutes would not be posted to the website.

For a brief moment, rum in the graveyard seemed the only appropriate response to this. But then I thought, “No, write about it.” So here I am at my keyboard instead.

Keeping the minutes confidential should not have been an option for the board of a corporation 100% owned by the citizens of the CBRM. I guess we should have codified that in the Articles of Association although how crazy is it that a board made up of citizens needs to be told it can’t hide information from citizens?

Best practice in access to information is an “open by default” system in which all government information is available — free of charge — to citizens except in certain, exceptional and well-defined situations. What we have in Nova Scotia is a “closed by default” system, where the knee-jerk response to any request for information is “No,” and the process for appealing that “No” is so slow that the overall effect is basically the same as declaring you will reveal no information whatsoever to the public. (The Privacy Commissioner is currently clearing a two-year backlog of complaints. Name the piece of government information you’re after and I will tell you why, two years down the line, it won’t matter anymore.)

Still, giving up is not an acceptable response, which is why I will mark Open Government Week by sending off a few freedom of information/protection of privacy (FOIPOP) requests. In fact, I think I’ll make a point of sending one to each level of government with a note saying, “Happy Open Government Week! Now tell me what I want to know.”

 

 

 

 

 

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