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Aquaculture opponent says NS disregarding freedom-of-information rules

Ron Neufeld has faced repeated unauthorized delays in accessing information

A frequent user of Nova Scotia’s freedom-of-information system says he’s growing frustrated with what he calls the repeated disregard for the rules by the provincial Fisheries and Aquaculture Department.

Ron Neufeld has filed four requests for information from the department since last February and each has faced notable delays.

In one case, Neufeld faced multiple time extensions for his application before eventually being told the package was awaiting sign-off by the deputy minister before it could be released; that only happened after Neufeld called in the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

In another case, the department refused to release any documents even after the commissioner became involved. In a third case, it took months for the deputy minister to sign off on what amounted to a single page of information; again the commissioner’s office had to intercede.

Neufeld is still waiting for information about a lease and licence for a specific aquaculture site he requested back in June.

“It’s hard not to feel picked on,” Neufeld, a well-known critic of open-pen fish farming, said in a telephone interview. “The department seems to have disregard for their obligations under [the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act].”

‘Committed to being open’

The freedom-of-information system is intended to provide accountability for the public when it comes to government operations, said Neufeld, but right now it feels like the department isn’t living up to its obligation.

Even more frustrating for him is that there is little that can be done to hold department officials’ feet to the fire; recommendations from the commissioner’s office are not binding. Premier Stephen McNeil has ignored repeated requests to change that, despite having promised to do so during the 2013 provincial election.

The department refused to make Minister Keith Colwell or deputy minister Loretta Robichaud available for an interview, but in a statement said they are “committed to being open and transparent.”

The statement said the department has been proactively posting “most information” online, including administrative and adjudicative decisions and adjudicative application documents. Leases and licences will be posted online as they’re renewed, according to the statement.

The department’s statement did not address the issue of delayed sign-offs by the deputy on the release of information packages.

Repeated roadblocks

A complaint from Neufeld was the subject of a report by the privacy commissioner’s office in February.

In that report, it was noted the department ignored followups by staff with Information Access and Privacy Services to try to move things along. It also noted that the act does not permit time delays for awaiting a deputy minister’s sign-off on the release of information.

At the time, Internal Services Minister Patricia Arab, whose department oversees Information Access and Privacy Services, said it would be “very irresponsible” for government officials not to do due diligence when it comes to freedom-of-information requests.

For Neufeld, who once successfully sued the government to gain access to information the commissioner ruled he was entitled to, the issue comes down to the department living up to its own talking points.

“I hear over and over again from the minister that they’re becoming more transparent and providing more information all the time, and yet it seems like that is actually not the case when you get down to asking them a question,” he said.

“It’s pretty basic information I’m asking for.”