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Commissioner wrong that ferry secrecy is a step backward, says minister

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Blair Lekstrom said he disagrees with British Columbia's information and privacy commissioner that the province is taking a step backwards on its open government initiative with changes included in a bill amending the Coastal Ferry Act.

"I've spent a lot of time going through freedom of information and protection of privacy," said Lekstrom, who chaired a 2004 committee on the topic and is vice-chair of the cabinet committee responsible for open government.

"I'm going to respectfully disagree with the privacy commissioner on this," he said. "This is not about trying to hide information, it's really about trying to actually make sure the system can work."

If a ferry operator is seeking bids to provide a good or service, you don't want to have a dollar figure for what they're expecting to pay already publicly available, he said. "I don't think that leads to a competitive bid. That's the issue that we're trying to address here."

In a May 11 letter to Lekstrom, Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham criticized the bill that is currently being considered by the legislative assembly. "In my view, a proposed amendment to the Coastal Ferry Act that would remove an existing requirement for proactive disclosure is a step backward," she said.

"It is contrary to government's Open Government initiative and to the policy intent of new provisions in [the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act] in relation to proactive disclosure," she said. "These provisions promote greater proactive and routine disclosure by public bodies."

Since taking office a year ago Premier Christy Clark has said open government is one of three top priorities, along with helping families and creating jobs. In recent weeks Denham has criticized elements of four bills the legislative assembly is debating for changing the balance the FIPPA strikes between confidentiality and the public's right to information.

The Coastal Ferry Act changes would give the B.C. Ferry Commissioner the discretion to not publish information that could be withheld under section 17 or 21 of the FIPPA, the sections that cover disclosure of information that could harm the financial or economic interests of a public body or government or the business interests of a third party.

"In my opinion, service and financial information pertaining to essential government services, such as the information BC Ferries discloses to the Commissioner for the purpose of establishing price caps for ferry routes, is information that is both useful to the public and likely to be the subject of access requests," said Denham. "It is clearly in the public interest that the Commissioner routinely and proactively disclose such information."

She requested that the government amend the bill so that the commissioner would still be required to proactively disclose the information used to set price caps on ferry routes.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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