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Northern Village of Pinehouse mayor, council did not deliberately violate FOI rules: inquiry

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WATCH: Municipal leaders in the Village of Pinehouse will stay in office after an inquiry – Feb 19, 2020

An inquiry into the operations of the Northern Village of Pinehouse, Sask., found that council was not meeting their legislative responsibilities for access to information requests and some municipal operations.

However, the report does not recommend that the mayor and council be removed.

This process began in December 2018, when the Saskatchewan Privacy Commissioner said the municipality had been blocking freedom of information (FOI) requests. This triggered an inspection, which was later expanded to a formal inquiry in March 2019 following a report on the initial inspection.

The inspection report recommended the removal of Mayor Mike Natomagan and Deputy Mayor Conrad Misponas from office.

This was one of the main considerations of former Court of Appeal judge William Vancise’s inquiry, which he was appointed to lead in June 2019.

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READ MORE: Sask. government orders inspection of Village of Pinehouse

In his report, which was submitted to Government Relations Minister Lori Carr on Dec. 23, 2019, and released publicly Feb. 19, Vancise found the village was non-compliant with requirements under FOI rules and the Northern Municipalities Act (NMA).

However, Vancise added that evidence suggests the non-compliance was not a deliberate disregard for the law. Instead, he said, the mayor and council did not have “a sufficient understanding of their responsibilities” under the relevant legislation, nor the resources in place to achieve compliance.

Click to play video 'FOI minister accused of circumventing FOI laws' FOI minister accused of circumventing FOI laws
FOI minister accused of circumventing FOI laws – May 14, 2019

Regarding allegations that Natomagan and Misponas were using their offices to advance their own interest, Vancise said he found no evidence either of them “engaged in fraudulent activity, nor sought to conceal any business relationships or financial transactions.”

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Vancise said he is “satisfied” that the mayor, council and village are taking the necessary steps to ensure they’re in compliance with FOI and NMA legislation.

READ MORE: Sask. government orders official inquiry into Village of Pinehouse

“This report is not an exoneration, nor will the province accept a ‘business as usual’ approach from the village,” Carr said in a statement.

“Clearly there is more work to do within the community. That is why I am immediately ordering officials within the ministry to arrange for temporary administration support-staff to provide hands-on assistance to the local council.”

According to the province, this temporary support staff will be in place for at least six months.

The NDP’s ethics and democracy critic, David Forbes said they are still waiting on an FOI regarding undisclosed political donations made by the Village. In the report, Natomagan told Vancise the village had previously purchased tables for a fund raising dinner for Saskatchewan Party MLA Laura Ross.

“The information released today on the Village of Pinehouse raises far more questions than it answers. Robertson’s inspection and Vancise’s inquiry come to drastically different conclusions. The Sask. Party government must not be allowed to sweep further examination of this issue under the rug,” Forbes said.

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“Today we’re calling on the Minister of Government Relations to act immediately on the five recommendations from the September 2019 inspection. In particular, a full forensic compliance review of expenses is essential, including for previous years. Of the expenses examined, only eight per cent were found to be fully compliant with the law.”

Going forward, there are several requirements Pinehouse must abide by, including:

  • ensure all recommendations from the Information and Privacy Commissioner are addressed;
  • ensure all financial activities of the village and its controlled corporations are properly accounted for and audited by the Village’s auditor;
  • work with support consultants to improve administration, increase transparency, deliver training to all village elected and appointed officials on municipal governance and responsibilities;
  • provide the province with a written resolution, and evidence, that no elected officials are serving as employees of the village or any of its controlled corporations;
  • provide public disclosure statements for all elected village officials.