P.E.I. privacy commissioner denied budget increase

Teresa Wright twright@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on October 14, 2014
Prince Edward Island privacy commissioner Maria MacDonald

Prince Edward Island’s privacy commissioner asked for more resources to help tackle years of backlogged files but was denied by the legislative standing committee that recommends her yearly budget.

In the 2012 annual report of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC), which was recently posted online, Maria MacDonald says she requested an increase in her office budget after an examination of its demands and limitations.

MacDonald stressed her office has been trying in vain to reduce the often extensive length of time it takes her office to complete some reviews of the way government has handled access to information requests.

“With the present resources and office makeup, I am hard-pressed to accomplish the many responsibilities under my mandate,” MacDonald writes in her report.

“The greatest and constant challenge of the OIPC over the past 10 years is to improve the timeliness of these reviews.”

MacDonald requested her own position be made full-time and for an investigative officer position to be added to the office to help investigate and mediate existing files.

Currently, MacDonald’s position is only part-time.

But the Standing Committee on Legislative Management, which recommends her office’s budget to government, denied this request, “due to fiscal challenges experienced by the legislative assembly and the province as a whole.”

MacDonald says in her report she accepted this decision and believes it was carefully considered, noting budgets from a few other legislative assembly offices were reduced in 2012.

But she issued a call to government departments to be more diligent in their handling of freedom of information requests.

She noted examples of files where she had to complete work that should have been done by a government agency or department, such as indexing and organizing records. Other instances also arose where a public body refused to release information that was already publicly available.

MacDonald also noted in this and in previous reports that government’s decisions to withhold information to the public are often not backed up with a detailed explanation of how non-disclosure is defensible by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPP) Act.

“It is very difficult to review the decision of a public body if it provides little explanation or evidence in support of its own position,” MacDonald states in the report.

“Even though it is not a task the OIPC is obliged to do, the OIPC must often undertake line-by-line reviews of records at issue to ensure that the FOIPP Act is followed and the claims of the public bodies are reasonable,” she explained.

“I urge public bodies to be specific when claiming an exception to disclosure and to provide a detailed explanation in support of the exception on which is being relied.”

In 2012, the privacy commissioner issued only one order. She commenced 12 new reviews of government decisions on access requests. These were added to the 31 existing files carried over from previous years.