November 22, 2011
Citizens Can't Wait for Transparency
According to Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Claude Williams, "There is no fixed timeline for municipalities to be brought under the Right to Information and Access to Privacy Act." Apparently the provincial government has been consulting with municipalities about an appropriate timeline. Why? Taxpayers aren't granted a period of grace before they need to comply with their new tax assessments; why should municipal councils be allowed to evade complying with a change in provincial law?
Officials have suggested that municipal staff need more training, but this is hardly a satisfactory answer. How much training does it take to understand that every decision or transaction involving the expenditure of public dollars must be accounted for, promptly and transparently? City staff in Moncton and Fredericton do not seem to need more training. Last year, when students working for Newspaper Canada filed access to information requests to 39 municipalities, these New Brunswick cities met the requests promptly and in sufficient detail. Saint John did not. Moreover, the Port City has placed last in the Frontier Centre for Public Policy's survey of transparency in 133 municipalities, nationwide.
With their sizable legal department and extensive bureaucracy, officials at Saint John City Hall should be well-equipped to understand the spirt and letter of the Act. But they don't seem to be prepared to honour it, until the provincial government forces them. This legislation was introduced in 2008. If the ministers responsible do not act now, and demand municipal compliance, councils across the province will have gone a full four-year term of office without having to answer taxpayers' questions.
That's not right - and it is certainly not the result that commissioner Donald Savoie intended, when he recommended that municipalities be brought under the scope of New Brunswick's information legislation to ensure greater public transparency.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy
is an independent public policy think tank whose mission is "to broaden the debate on our future through public policy research and education and to explore positive changes within our public institutions that support economic growth and opportunity."