Brave old world

Josh Pennell
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Panel reviewing access to information hears praise for life before Bill 29

The first public hearing held by a panel conducting a review of the province’s access to information system brought in no more than 10 people Tuesday.

From left, Doug Letto, Clyde Wells and Jennifer Stoddart prepare for the first day of testimony at the access to information hearings at the Ramada Hotel in St. John’s Tuesday.

That was despite a House of Assembly filibuster meant to deflect Bill 29 being voted in and a verbal dust up from the public over its resulting changes to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

And of those in attendance Tuesday, at least a couple were there working for the group conducting the review.

The panel — led by former premier Clyde Wells and including retired journalist Doug Letto and former federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart — heard from Information and Privacy Commissioner Ed Ring that much of Bill 29 needs to be reversed.

Ring, along with the director of special projects from his office, Sean Murray, spent considerable time speaking to the panel, presenting concerns with the current access to information system and discussing opinions with panel members.

“I doubt anybody could have guessed the reaction would be so intense,” Ring said, commenting on how much the public rumbled over the passing of Bill 29.

Ring also said that if the recommendations made by his office were accepted, the result would be the strongest access and privacy law in the country.

Murray spoke at length about the recommended changes, the discussion over which often went into minute detail about vocabulary and specific circumstances.

What was obvious from the discussion and the general ideas Murray laid before the panel was that the information and privacy commissioner and his office are looking to return the province’s access to information system to its pre-Bill 29 status.

Taxpayers will have more accessible information on salaries and bonuses of those paid through the public purse. There will be circumstances when cabinet confidences will be exempt from protection.

“Showstoppers” was a term Ring used several times to refer to things in Bill 29 that have resulted in people not getting information they request and that they deserve.

The public hearing revealed the lengths some people go to get requested information.

Letto pointed out that part of the act specifically says it’s supposed to make public bodies more accountable.

However, people often demand certain information they feel they deserve, but instead of access being granted, the case goes to court as people fight for their request to be met, Letto said.

It was pointed out during the hearing that having to go to court creates a barrier to justice because not everybody is going to go that far.

“Sometimes applicants say nothing. They just walk away,” Ring said.

That means information that somebody may have deserved never gets to them, he said.

Wells also raised concerns about the length of time — even without going to court — people sometimes have to wait for their request.

With 60 days being a granted time people could wait, Wells pointed out that some simple requests should take only a few days.

Access delayed is access denied, Wells said.

In an ideal world, Ring said, such things would be sped up, but that would require more resources for his office so it could handle the load put on it, and a cultural shift in how accessible the government believes the information should be.

The hearings will continue this week. Wells said there was such little interest from people outside of the St. John’s area to present to the panel that it was cheaper to bring the few presenters to St. John’s than to bring the  panel to them.

The panel will present its report of recommendations in the fall.

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Recent comments

  • It Gets Worse
    June 25, 2014 - 18:31

    Wednesday's witnesses were 2 former Wells staffers. Maybe next time Letto can have CBC retirees Larry Hudson and Karl Wells make an appearance. This lost public confidence when Tom Marshall hired his former law firm partner Clyde Wells for the job.

  • Rob
    June 25, 2014 - 09:08

    All the hype over this issue and only a handful of people showed up. It seems that only the media is interested in this issue. Perhaps there should be study on how the media manipulates public opinion.

  • Ken Collis
    June 25, 2014 - 00:21

    Not many people will show up at these meetings but that doesn't mean people don't care. Most requests come from the media. We expect the media to keep us informed but we also expect the media to speak up for us at these meetings. We don't know the reasons that media requests are denied so we can't speak from experence. What would be the point of me having something to say when I wouldn't know what I was talking about. Only the media can complain and make suggestions on our behalf. Don't confuse the public's lack of attendance with a lack of caring.