Premier Christy Clark surprised the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention on Sept. 20 when she gave the green-light for a bridge to replace the 1958-built Massey Tunnel between Richmond and Delta. She didn’t mention how much it would cost British Columbians. She only spoke of the benefits and that construction would begin in 2017, the next election year. Just a week-and-a-half after the announcement, four major, nine-year contracts were advertised — including community relations and consultation, technical advisory, environmental management and owner’s engineer services. Transport Minister Todd Stone eventually revealed the project could cost $3 billion. But that didn’t get as much attention as Clark’s speech.
This is from the same BC Liberal government that is mandating Metro Vancouverites vote next fall on funding for billions of dollars of transit improvements in Vancouver and Surrey. I like that idea, because voting on major projects should be standard in British Columbia at a time when the provincial debt is forecast to hit $62 billion. The politicians come and go, but it’s the average people who will be paying off the debt for each project for decades to come. Can we afford to do it? Can we afford not to do it? Should hospitals and schools get funding instead? Let’s see the business case. Then let the people debate and decide. But I wonder, why does the Massey Tunnel replacement get special, no-referendum treatment? Why can’t we vote on this project? How will it impact the Deas Island Regional Park? How will it impact the dwindling supply of nearby farmland? How will it be financed?
Well, the government is trying to keep that information away from you and me.
Via Freedom of Information, I asked for the business case, including cost estimates, and any reports recommending or authorizing preliminary communications, environmental, engineering and site preparation.
The government told me on Nov. 5 that it has 60 pages of records to satisfy my request. Excellent! But there’s a catch. The government wants me to pay $126. It claims it will require two hours to produce the records and a further two hours to prepare and handle disclosure of the records. (Translation: one or more people will work for four hours to read and decide how much information to censor and how little to show you and me.)
While it says the cost of scanning is only $6 (at 10 cents a page), I did the math and the real average cost per page is $2.10. See the letter from the Ministry of Finance below. I am a frequent requester via FOI and never has a government of any level in Canada asked me to pay so much for so little.
What is going on?
I’m reminded of the words of Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democrat from Vermont, who said “…agencies should not be allowed to use fees as an offensive weapon against requesters seeking access to government information.” I’m also reminded of the words of Premier Clark herself, when she unveiled her Open Government Initiative in July 2011 with this video message to the B.C. Public Service. Clark famously proclaimed:
“Open government is about giving people access to the information that they need to participate and to help us find solutions to the issues that affect us all. “After all, it’s taxpayers’ money and it’s taxpayers’ information… “It’s time to open government. To connect and communicate with the people that we all serve. “Government belongs to the people and by working together we can engage British Columbians and get more of them involved in making our province an even better place.”
Premier Clark, I challenge you to do the right thing. Put the free back into Freedom of Information. Live up to your open government promise. Cancel the $126 charge and show the people of British Columbia the business case for the Massey Tunnel replacement. All 60 pages. Now. After all, it’s taxpayers’ money and it’s taxpayers’ information.
UPDATE (Dec. 2, 2013): My request to the Ministry of Finance for a fee waiver based on the public interest was denied — see the letter at bottom.
I have also filed a complaint to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
UPDATE (May 21, 2014): I received a May 20 letter from OIPC investigator Tim Mots with goods news for you and me. “During mediation, the Ministry informed me that it would waive the fee in its entirety.”
It is both good news and proof that complaining to the OIPC can bear fruit. But it is not a victory when it takes six-and-a-half months for the government to scrap its wrong, irrational and, frankly, dubious attempt to use an excessive fee as an offensive weapon against a citizen who was simply exercising his right to know.