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BC's move away from open government puzzling, says advocate

Removing a proactive disclosure requirement for the BC Ferry Commissioner is a puzzling step from a minister and government who say they believe in open government, said Vincent Gogolek, the executive director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Blair Lekstrom has introduced legislation that among other things removes a requirement for the commissioner to publish the information used to set price caps for ferry operators.

"He's somebody who is known as an MLA who's been willing in the past to stand up for access rights," said Gogolek. "Now he's the minister and he's taking this action."

In his defense of the move, Lekstrom said the intention is to allow the commissioner to withhold information such as what the company is planning to pay for a good or service that would put it at a competitive disadvantage when it seeks bids.

Asked if that had been a problem in the eight years the commissioner has had to disclose price cap information, Lekstrom said it's a real possibility.

"It's interesting that after eight years he's still talking about theoretical possibilities of harm," said Gogolek. Under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, public bodies can only withhold such information if there is a strong case that the release will harm the financial or economic interests of a public body or government or the business interests of a third party, he said.

"It can't be a hypothetical risk of harm," he said. "There has to be something there. It sounds like they're trying to get around that."

The government is taking a situation where proactive disclosure has worked fine and making it so people will have to file FOI requests for the same information, a process that takes time and money to administer, he said.

In 2004 Lekstrom chaired a committee that recommended expanding the proactive release of government documents. He is also vice-chair of the cabinet committee responsible for open government, an area Premier Christy Clark has said is one of her top three priorities.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has written to Lekstrom asking him to reconsider.

"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," she said. "It is clearly in the public interest that the Commissioner routinely and proactively disclose such information."

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

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