Scott Hennig, Vice President of Communications for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation stands in front of a billboard his organization put up on 14th street just north of 10 ave SW in downtown Calgary, Alberta on July 25,2012 bringing attention to the lavish pension plans for MP's.
Credits: STUART DRYDEN/QMI AGENCY
Scott Hennig, director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), is one of a number of stakeholders meeting with Don Scott this week, as part of the minister of accountability, transparency and transformation's efforts to clean up the way the Alberta government does business.
The Freedom Of Information and Privacy Protection (FOIP) Act governs how the public can request public information and just what the government must release, upon request. In Alberta, FOIP is harder than it needs to be, Hennig said.
"A lot of people, like reporters and like watchdog groups like us, file FOIPs and we get denied often for various reasons. Some of those are legitimate invasion of privacy issues," Hennig said.
Others hide behind FOIP, he said.
"It's just basically politicians trying to keep stuff hidden," Hennig said.
"You can't FOIP the Speaker's office or an MLA's office. If we want to see the expenses of the smallest town council in Alberta, I can FOIP it, but I can't FOIP an MLA's expenses."
Section 24 of the Freedom of Information Act gives public bodies the legal option to refuse disclosure if they deem the information to be "advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options," which covers a lot of ground in thwarting public access.
FOIP requests have to be written out -- and accompanied by a cheque to cover the cost of research and photocopies.
The FOIP request for the expense records of Allaudin Merali, former chief financial officer of Alberta Health Services, cost CBC $500. Hennig said one current FOIP request cost a cool $10,000 -- and has government personnel scrambling to deliver crates of documentation.
The expense can have a chilling effect on media outlets or watchdog groups that inform the public but may be dogged by budget constraints.
The CTF recently was told a FOIP search would run them $3,000. They dropped the request.
"It's often used as a way to get people to back off and walk away," Hennig said.
CTF sought to have Section 24 repealed in 2007. That's when CTF FOIPed the City of Calgary for a report on research or future plans for new municipal taxing powers.
Out of 190 pages presented, 121 pages were withheld, citing Section 24 of the FOI Act in the middle of blank pages.
Hennig said CTF requests related to the current Edmonton arena deal with the Katz Group are routinely denied by the City of Edmonton.
Scott, the attorney and Fort McMurray-Conklin MLA was quickly saddled not only with his new constituency after the election, but with a FOIP review, a whistle-blower review, an investigation into Alberta Health Services' (AHS) hiring policies and figuring out a new, more transparent way to account for AHS expense tabs in the wake of the Merali spending debacle.
"He wants to ensure the government is as transparent as possible. He wants to ensure the government can release more information proactively and routinely," said Mike Berezowsky, a spokesperson for Service Alberta, which includes Scott's ministry.
"Everything's under scrutiny. He's looking at all of it."