News / Halifax

The cost of transparency: Halifax councillors question freedom of information price tag

Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser says there's no 'magic bullet' to reduce the number of freedom of information requests -- and he questions that goal.

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Two Halifax regional councillors questioned the cost of handling freedom of information requests on Tuesday, but a local privacy lawyer said that’s just the cost of doing government business.

Council met on Tuesday to debate the proposed budgets of five business units for the coming year, one of which includes the clerk’s office, which handles requests for information under the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The Act gives members of the public the right to pay a $5 fee to request public records, and the number of these requests in Halifax has been growing over the past few years, up to 450 in 2017.

Each request costs the municipality $473 to process, according to a projection in last year’s budget -- well below Municipal Benchmarking Network Canada’s median of $798. The municipality added a staff position in 2017 to the clerk’s office to help handle the requests, bringing the Access and Privacy budget up to $268,800.

“I think the takeaway for me is just for the public to know that this is something that is costly to the municipality,” Coun. Bill Karsten said in council on Tuesday.

“I know there was one recently, just days ago, that I personally spent about an hour trying to retrieve some stuff out of my deleted (emails).”

Coun. Lorelei Nicoll also questioned the cost. She suggested the municipality’s open data efforts were failing if the number of requests was growing.

“I don’t think there’s anything that a government does that doesn’t have a cost of some sort, and that’s part of the cost of doing the public’s business,” privacy lawyer David Fraser said in an interview.

Fraser said the courts have said government openness and transparency are an important part of our democracy – but it’s “double-edged” in that it does come with a price tag.

“I don’t think there’s any particular magic bullet that will reduce access to information requests,” he said. “And the reality is, I wonder whether that’s a good thing.”

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