Thursday, the provincial government finally crept into the 21st century, doing what a host of other provinces have been doing for years: it put restaurant inspection reports online, so that the people who spend money to eat at restaurants can find out if the places they patronize pass the basic rules of food hygiene.
It’s something the province has resisted for years, saying there’s no need for the information to be in the hands of the dining public.
But how things change.
“Today’s announcement is a great example of how the provincial government is working to proactively disclose information that is available upon request,” Keith Hutchings, the province’s public engagement minister, was quoted as saying in a Thursday news release.
“Through the new Office of Public Engagement we will assist in identifying information that should be available for routine disclosure such as restaurant inspection reports. It is all about making access easier and this new web resource will do just that.”
It is a marvellous thing — but hardly rocket science, when, in Toronto, a restaurant’s inspection report is posted clearly at the front door.
Now, to slightly less of a “great example.”
It hinges on a slight change brought in with Bill 29, the provincial government’s adjustment to provincial access to information legislation.
As a result of the change, you’re no longer allowed to ask for the remuneration paid to provincial employees or appointees; instead, you can ask for their “salary range.”
A salary range offers up the bare bones: the base and maximum salaries that the holder of a position would be eligible for.
Remuneration, however, means something different. It means all the benefits an office holder might get, regardless of whether they are part of the base salary or not.
Even now, the government refuses to admit the legislation change does anything, and claims the same information is released now as was released before.
That is, unfortunately, a lie.
Because last week, a CBC test of the legislation showed that information that had been released under the old act is now held to be secret.
And it’s not only the CBC: The Telegram regularly asked for, and received, information about remuneration and got the information. On at least one occasion, we asked for severance payments to a health board official, were told we couldn’t have it, and used the old legislation to actually force its release.
No more. Now, that information is private, between the province and its employees.
Why does it matter?
Because, when you get right down to it, a salary range is not what an employee is being paid.
The devil is in the details, and taxpayers are paying for those details. And Kathy Dunderdale’s government feels you have no right to know where that money’s going.
The CBC cited the example of Len Simms, a former PC leader who has been running the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation for several years, except for the two times he has quit to help run the Tory provincial election campaign (and subsequently was put right back in his old housing job).
In the past, getting copies of Mr. Simms’ employment contract was as simple as making a request.
Now, portions are blacked out, because the contract is now “personal information.”
CBC has already determined that the government is refusing to outline the amounts the taxpayer is pitching cash into RRSPs for some appointees like Simms, a payment that even the taxman would recognize as part of someone’s income.
What else could be outside the new rules?
Well, car allowances, vacation allowances, performance bonuses, cash payments in lieu of vacation, travel bonuses (some contracts include regular paid travel out of province), overtime, special severance deals, clothing allowances — the list goes on.
Why would those numbers matter? Maybe they wouldn’t — or maybe they could hide significant payments to staff.
For example, the provincial government paid Nalcor boss Ed Martin $112,491.81 in cash for the vacation days he didn’t take during the period 2005-2009.
Do numbers like that add up in a hurry? Sure they do.
If you take the eight top positions at Nalcor below Ed Martin in 2009, the incumbents totalled up $322,625.66 in “other compensation” for that year alone — all of it money that taxpayers are no longer allowed to know the executives received.
Add in Martin’s one-time vacation cheque, and nine executives split more than $430,000 between them that single year.
It’s one thing to know that the vice-president and general manager of Churchill Falls made somewhere around $154,000 a year in salary in 2009. It’s something else again to know that the same manager actually took home $207,041 in salary and other compensation.
What the government has done — what they have denied doing, and now have been proven to have done — is to supply a mechanism that can be used to reward favourites financially and hide those financial rewards from the people who are actually providing the money. There’s the salary that the public sees, and the jam that can be spread around in benefits.
The irony of it all?
Governments already know the difference.
They don’t make you pay income tax on your salary range.
They make you pay tax on the pay and benefits you receive.
So about that one step forward and two back?
Now, maybe you can look up your favourite restaurant and eat with a little more confidence.
But the hypocrisy of the Dunderdale government about the benefits of releasing information can still turn your stomach.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.