Information and Privacy Commissioners says access to information response from Northern Village of Pinehouse ‘unacceptable’

Saskatchewan’s Information and Privacy Commissioner has taken the Northern Village of Pinehouse to task again in a pair of reports released on May 1.

Those reports mark the 15th and 16th times commissioner Ronald Kruzeniski has looked into village governance. As with the 14th report, which was released on April 23, Kruzeniski criticized the village for how it handled access to information (AOI) requests.

“If records requested do not exist, the Village should indicate that, cite subsection 7(2)(e) of LA FOIP (Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act) and list what does not exist in its response,” Kruzeniski wrote in his 15th report. “Providing explanations and efforts that were undertaken to located responsive records can sometimes satisfy applicants. It can also build trust with applicants that nothing is being hidden. It is about being transparent and open to the public.”

“The lack of compliance with LA FOIP cannot continue,” Kruzeniski wrote, this time in the 16th report. “It appears from the reviews my office has handled in 2018 and 2019, the village picks and chooses which applicants and access requests it wishes to respond to. This is unacceptable.”

While the 14th report dealt largely with the existence of village council and Pinehouse Business North board meeting minutes from 2009 to 2011, the 15th and 16th reports were looking for information about politicians.

The biggest was the 16th report, which focused on requests for information about any visits from provincial Finance Minister Donna Harpauer between August 2016 and August 2018. According to a report from MBC Radio, Harpauer visited the community twice during that period. She was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Conflict of Interest Commissioner for accepting accommodation in the community that was paid for by the village.

On Jan. 18, 2019, the village received an access to information request from an applicant that was not named in the commissioner’s report. The applicant asked for any copies of village financial transaction records “indicating payment by the Village in these instances or any other such visits.”

The applicant had not received a response by Feb. 24, and contacted the commissioner’s office, which started a review on March 7 after phone messages and emails went unanswered.

Village administration sent an email on March 19 indicating that it was working on a submission for the commissioner by March 22, the day the review was due. However, by March 25, the commissioner’s office had received nothing from the village.

The village later sent an email on April 8, 2019 that said there was a problem with their email account. They asked for the commissioner’s office to resend the last four emails, and promised the requested information as soon as possible. As of April 29, the commissioner’s office had not heard back.

The commissioner’s office was provided with a different email address on April 8, and sent an updated status on all review files the next day. Once again, they received no response.

On April 18, the supervisor appointed to oversee the village sent the commissioner’s office four images of emails containing only the header.

“It is clear that the Village is having issues with its main email account,” Kruzeniski wrote in his report. “If this issue continues, I would encourage the Village to communicate with my office using the telephone or at least return my office’s phone calls.”

Despite the communication difficulties, Kruzeniski still found the village in violation of its 30-day statutory deadline, for failing to identify appropriate reasons for withholding records, and for failing to provide a response to the applicant.

He recommended that the village not only release the appropriate records, but to also develop new policies and procedures for dealing with access to information requests. Those policies are to be forwarded to the Ministry of Government Relations and the commissioner’s office within 30 days. Similar recommendations were also made in the 14th and 15th reports.

The 15th report, focused on any payments received by Greg Ross, a Pinehouse village councillor, between 2013 and 2016. The applicant asked for any payment vouchers for salary, per diems and benefit contributions made to Ross during those years, as well as descriptions of jobs and positions he held from 2011 to 2016. The applicant also asked for village council meeting minutes that could show whether or not Ross removed himself from meetings where there was discussion and approval of any salaried position he was appointed to.

The applicant received roughly 200 pages of records from the village, however he received no information about why certain records were missing. During the review, the Pinehouse village office sent an email saying the commissioner’s office emails were arriving blank. Village administration did not return phone calls requesting contact.

The commissioner’s office notified village administration on Mar. 5 that a review was starting. The office requested a submission by Mar. 20. On Mar. 22, the village sent five emails to the commissioner’s office and the applicant containing attachments and subject lines that read “minutes 2011”, “minutes 2012”, “minutes 2013” and “minutes 2014”.

Although Kruzeniski applauded the village for making efforts to provide more information about why certain records were not released, he still found them in violation of the Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“In conclusion, as the Village did not provide details of its search for efforts as requested by my office, I find that the Village has not demonstrated that its search for records was reasonable and adequate for purposes of LA FOIP,” he wrote. “I recommend the Village conduct a reasonable and adequate search for the remaining records and information requested and provide explanations and details of its search efforts to the Applicant. Any records located should be provided to the Applicant.”