We shall begin with two tenets of democracy:
- Openness and transparency are hallmarks of good government.
- The news media has a responsibility to serve as a ‘watchdog’ to ensure citizens get the information they need in a democracy.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in New Brunswick where the province, at the request of Saint John Mayor Don Darling and Councillor David Merrithew, are going to clamp a user fee on our right to information and where the news media, generally, fail us daily by not asking hard questions or providing us with even basic essential facts in their so-called ‘journalism’.
What is the justification for a user fee for citizens and others who want to file a request under the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act? Well, apparently, it costs too much to provide the service for free. But in making the request to again charge a fee (the fees came off in 2011), the Mayor is only capable of telling citizens that “there is a significant cost involved.” Councillor Merrithew describes that cost as “huge”, with no numbers to back up his hyperbole.
Dictionaries, by the way, generally define ‘huge’ as enormous, vast, immense, large, big, great, massive, colossal, prodigious, gigantic, gargantuan, mammoth, and monumental. Based on that, the processing of 66 requests under the Act in 2016, must surely have cost taxpayers millions of dollars! But, nobody is saying exactly how much because in fact, a better word to have used would have been ‘paltry’ or in colloquial language, “a drop in the bucket”, especially when one considers the importance of openness and transparency in government in an environment where the media fails to do its job. But, we don’t know whether it is indeed a ‘huge’ figure or just a ‘paltry’ amount or somewhere in between, because the very politicians who are so quick to praise openness and transparency have failed to provide any figures to back up their decision. Worse, journalists at CBC.ca in New Brunswick didn’t even bother to ask, simply accepting that the decision must be needed because the number is “huge” and they’ll just take the politician’s word for it, a sure sign that democracy is on its last legs.
Why do we, as citizens, need to know the dollar figure and not just accept the hyperbolic statements of politicians? Because politicians have a long history of lying to justify their actions. The latest and most blatant example of this is Donald Trump who lied his way to the White House, tossing erroneous facts and figures around like so much confetti at a wedding party. The national media south of the border often questioned his assertions, something local journalists here would be unlikely to do. Here, in New Brunswick, where the Irving press rules supreme, other faux journalists follow the pack of indifference. No where in North America is “openness and transparency” needed more than right here in our own backyard. In the absence of such, freedom of information is, even more, essential.
We also need to know exactly what this service is costing us, as taxpayers, so that we can compare the return on investment as compared to other programs and services offered by the city. If the price of accessing information is indeed ‘huge’, then surely the overall financial burden facing our municipalities must be gargantuan! Even the cost of travel for the Mayor and other politicians to conferences and events would be “huge”, but why is that allowed to continue while access to information is being discouraged by implementation of a user fee?
The bottom line: the decision to re-instate a user fee for citizens to access information at Saint John City Hall is a draconian step, almost certainly based solely on complaints within the Clerk’s office that ‘its just taking too much of our time”. There is no valid reason for charging citizens to access information that they have a right to. A more progressive council would, instead, ensure that more information is made available in advance and in sufficient detail for open discussion and debate. Facts would replace hyperbole; the truth would replace lies.