The official Opposition is taking Nova Scotia’s provincial government to court in an attempt to force the government to release management fees it paid to the operator of a high-speed ferry service between Yarmouth, N.S., and Portland, Maine.
Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston announced the decision on Sunday, at the party’s Annual General Meeting.
“Time after time, this Liberal government has hidden information from Nova Scotians that they have the right to know,” Houston said in a press release.
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 received approximately $10.9 million for 2018 — is paid to Bay Ferries for simply being in charge of the service.
Nova Scotia’s government has refused to release the management fees, despite a report recommending their release from Catherine Tully, the province’s privacy commissioner in December 2018.
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.
The report came after, three groups — including Marieke Walsh, then a reporter with Global News — requested the financial information that Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (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, Maine or allow competitors to have an advantage at the negotiation table.
WATCH: McNeil defends right to ignore request from privacy commissioner
Tully rejected that argument, saying that there is “no evidence to reasonably conclude that by knowing what the operation costs and management fees the province is paying now could realistically assist a competitor in devising a bid in the future.”
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.”
Now, the official opposition says they intend to file an appeal with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on Monday morning.
“The fact is, this government has shown over and over again that they don’t want anyone snooping around, asking questions and finding out what they are really up to,” Houston said.
“Nova Scotians should not have to take their own government to court to find out how their tax dollars are being spent.”
On Sunday afternoon, Forestry Minister Iain Rankin fired back, saying the government stands by their decision to not release the details of their contract with Bay Ferries and that the provincial government abides by the FOIPOP Act.
“It’s about striking a balance, we believe we’ve striked a balance in terms of how we provide information when FOIPOP asks come in,” he said.
“We look through it and ensure that we’re protecting the privacy and ensure we’re getting the best money for taxpayers and in this case, there’s a private company involved.”
Tully has previously 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,” she said.
Premier Stephen 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
McNeil has previously touted his government as creating the “most open and transparent province in Canada.”
With files from Alicia Draus