January 17, 2019 3:40 pm

Nova Scotia refuses to release management fees for CAT ferry

The CAT ferry leaves Yarmouth, N.S., for its maiden voyage to Portland, Maine. Bay Ferries chairman and CEO Mark MacDonald says the controversial contract to operate the ferry was the best deal for taxpayers.

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Nova Scotia has refused to release the management fees it paid to the operator of a high-speed ferry service between Yarmouth, N.S., and Portland, Maine, despite a report recommending their release from the province’s privacy commissioner last month.

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“The Department does not intend to make further disclosures on this file,” wrote Paul T. LaFleche, deputy minister for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (TIR), in response to the report from Catherine Tully’s office.

The province has no obligation to follow recommendations from Nova Scotia’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) because she is not an officer of the legislature and therefore has no enforcement power. However, Premier Stephen McNeil has touted his government as creating the “most open and transparent province in Canada.”

On Thursday, Tully told Global News that the province’s government departments are the public body most likely to reject her office’s recommendations.

READ MORE: Privacy ombudsman recommends Nova Scotia disclose fees paid for CAT ferry service

The ferry, better known as the CAT, is operated by Bay Ferries as part of a 10-year deal with the Nova Scotia government made back in 2016.

As part of the deal, the province agreed to cover any cash deficiency the company incurs for the year, as well as a management fee and any bonus, should the ferry perform better than expected.

But the price tags for the management fee and a possible bonus have been kept secret.

Without that information, it’s impossible to tell how much of the ferry’s annual subsidy — it’s projected to receive $10.9 million for 2018 — is paid to Bay Ferries for simply being in charge of the service.

As a result, three groups — including Marieke Walsh, then a reporter with Global News — requested the financial information that TIR had refused to provide under the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP) in the spring of 2016.

But the government refused, saying it could harm the financial or economic interests of Bay Ferries to do so and could also create a competitive disadvantage for the company.

Bay Ferries also objected to the release of the information.

The government said the disclosure of the management fee could harm Bay Ferries’ ability to negotiate a move to Bar Harbor or allow competitors to have an advantage at the negotiation table.

“There is no evidence to reasonably conclude that by knowing what the operation costs and management fee the province is paying now could realistically assist a competitor in devising a bid in the future,” Tully wrote in her report.

WATCH: McNeil defends right to ignore requests from privacy commissioner

Tully also said the management fee paid to Bay Ferries for two other ferry contracts are already publicly available and that the practice of publishing management fees “does not appear to be that uncommon.”

“It seems that Bay Ferries is able to successfully compete on ferry projects despite the fact that its management fees for two other projects are publicly available,” she concluded.

But the government has disagreed, saying that it is attempting to strike a balance between “broad transparency” and protecting “commercially-sensitive information.”

Tim Houston, leader of the Progressive Conservative Opposition, slammed that decision on Thursday.

“Taxpayer dollars pay for that management fee and the amount should not be a secret,” Houston said.

“The government has gone to great lengths to keep this information from Nova Scotians. It makes me wonder what they are hiding.”

The decision by the Nova Scotia government once again raises the spectre of the privacy commissioner’s requests for an updated FOIPOP Act, which has not been updated since it was created 25 years ago.

Since 2017, Tully has said that Nova Scotia’s access-to-information laws “are not always up to the task” of defending citizens’ democratic rights, separating fact from fiction and providing cold hard facts such as government documents that cannot be obtained otherwise.

Tully told Global News that rejecting her recommendations seem to fly in the face of what is intended to be achieved by the FOIPOP Act.

“The Act is meant to empower citizens to make a meaningful contribution to the democracy,”

“That’s not what happens now.”

READ MORE: N.S. premier calls 2013 election promise a ‘mistake,’ experts say it shows lack of commitment to transparency

McNeil has said that he believes Tully has enough power and doesn’t need order-making power, despite a 2013 campaign promise.

He has since called that commitment a “mistake” and defended the government’s right to ignore requests from the privacy commissioner.

The Opposition says the decision to not release the management fees is just not good enough.

“Today, this government clearly showed that they prefer to operate in the shadows, accountable to no one – not Nova Scotians and not the privacy commissioner,” Houston said.

The three organizations that requested the management fees are left with the ability to appeal the government’s decision to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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