By Robert Frank
The town of Baie d’Urfé claims that it is too small to comply with the provisions of the province’s access-to-information law.
“The town is a small municipality of 3,850 residents and has limited administrative staff,” city clerk Marie-Hélène Bourque told the Quebec Access to Information Commission.
“We’re simply unable, without seriously undermining the city’s activities, to do the digging…needed to respond to such a request,” she said in a letter to commission chair Jean Chartier, Jan. 19.
Bourque wrote the letter opposing several information requests, including one from resident Gaetano Ionata that asked Baie d’Urfé to divulge details of the more than $3.6 million in “autres” or “miscellaneous accounts” expenses that it reported in the town’s 2013 financial statements.
According to Access to Information Commission spokeswoman Isabelle St. Pierre, Baie d’Urfé wants to use a loophole in the law for “requests deemed abusive or frivolous.”
“We see about 50 such requests per year,” she said in a telephone interview from her Quebec City office. “The organization that asks for the exemption has the burden of proving that it can’t respond to repeated or systematic requests.”
Mayor Maria Tutino also complained during the December council meeting that adhering to the transparency law was overloading Baie d’Urfé’s civil servants. However, town manager Nathalie Hadida favoured the filing of access to information requests during the subsequent Feb. 10 council meeting.
When resident Richard Eastveld asked for information pertaining to the town’s purchase of allegedly contaminated land, Hadida told him that he had to file an access to information request.
“We will then evaluate whether the document can be released,” Hadida told him. “It will be the town clerk’s department that will determine this.”
St. Pierre confirmed that the commission has opened a file on Baie d’Urfé’s petition to be absolved from responding to the information requests.
“There’s a mediation process involved that might help the parties reach a settlement,” she explained. “Otherwise the case will go before a judge. Once a case has been heard, the judge has three months to render a decision.”
The dispute might prove moot, given the Liberal government’s plans to tighten the province’s transparency law.
Next month, Access to Information Minister Jean-Marc Fournier is expected to unveil details of an update to the law, that will force Quebec government organizations to make their documents available free of charge via the Internet. That would spare individuals the need to file cumbersome and time-consuming access requests.
“Minister Fournier plans to table a position paper within the next few weeks,” Access to Information Secretariat spokesman Félix Rhéaume told The Suburban.
“That will be the first step toward reforming [Quebec’s] access to information law and serve as the basis for subsequent review by a parliamentary committee,” he said in a telephone interview.
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