Privacy Commissioner issues strong rebuke in 14th report on Northern Village of Pinehouse

The Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner has issued another report criticizing the Northern Village of Pinehouse for how it handles access to information requests.

The latest report was released on April 23, and concerns a request for minutes from village council and Pinehouse Business North (PBN) meetings where motions were passed authorizing the PBN board to dispense with financial statements from 2009, 2010 and 2011.

In the report, commissioner Ronald Kruzeniski wrote that village administration failed to respond within the 30-day statutory deadline, failed to give any reasons under the current legislation supporting their decision to withhold expense information, and failed to conduct a reasonable or adequate search for records. This is the 14th time the commissioner has had to issue a report about the village’s response to access to information requests.

Crystal Frenette, the woman responsible for filing the original access to information request in December, said taxpayers have a right to know how decisions are made, and how money is spent. She’s frustrated it’s taken this long to get the information, and called on the provincial government to draft new laws to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“I’m really surprised that it has come to 14 reports,” Frenette said during an interview on Friday. “There are not enough teeth in the legislation.”

According to the Commissioner’s findings, Frenette made her access to information request on Dec. 11, 2018 via Canada Post. Tracking information indicated that the village administrators received the request on Dec. 14. She sent the village an email on Jan. 18 asking for an update, but was told the village had emailed a response earlier in the day.

Frenette emailed the village office back to say she had received nothing, but did not get a reply. She then sent a request to the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner on Jan. 21, and later received a letter and a single one-page record from the village with the expense information removed.

Beginning on Jan. 28, the commissioner’s office either emailed or called the village on six different occasions, but received only two responses. The first came on Feb. 19, when the village told the commissioner’s office that emails sent on Jan. 31 asking for submissions and clarifications were blank and needed to be sent again. The second came when they asked to extend the commissioner’s first deadline from Feb. 14 to March 8 because of the blank emails. There were no further responses from the village by the time the commissioner continued with his review on March 21.

As a result of his review Kruzeniski recommended that the village develop and policy and procedure for processing access to information requests, and that they provide a copy of this new policy to the Ministry of Government Relations and to the commissioner’s office.

Kruzeniski also recommended that the village conduct another search for council and PBN board minutes, and release the expense information withheld from the one-page record provided in January.

Pinehouse Mayor Mike Natomagan and clerk Martine Smith were unavailable for interviews on Friday. However, on Jan. 22 Natomagan told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix that responding to access to information requests was not a priority.

“To be quite honest, living in (one of the poorest regions of Canada), do we care about freedom of information? Not really,” Natomagan said at the time. “Are we going to get another slap on the hand here? Probably … We’ll get to it when we get to it, when we have time, because there are other priorities within our community.”

The StarPhoenix also reported that Regina-based lawyer Neil Robertson recommended removing Natomagan and one councillor from their positions following a village inspection. On March 29, the provincial government moved to make the inspection an official inquiry after reviewing Robertson’s report. The province has also launched a financial audit of village operations, and appointed an advisor to oversee the village council.

–with files from Andrea Hill and Thia James, Saskatoon StarPhoenix