CBC wins case
Appeal allows reporter to view public works leases

Cindy MacDougall
Northern News Services

NNSL (Oct 29/99) - A CBC reporter has won the right to see how much rent the territorial government is paying on some of the buildings it uses.

Supreme Court Justice John Z. Vertes ruled in his decision, released Monday, that the GNWT was partially contravening its own Access to Information Act when it withheld information from CBC reporter Lee Selleck. The information was on rents payable and operation and maintenance costs of buildings the government had rented on 15-year leases since 1985.

"Canadian jurisprudence is consistent in holding that the general philosophy behind this type of legislation is full disclosure of information," Vertes wrote. "Access, not secrecy, is the dominant purpose insofar as it relates to government documents."

The story starts in August 1997, when Selleck requested information from the Department of Public Works and Services on 15-year leases the government held throughout the NWT.

The department released the documents, but deleted the rents payable, operating costs and maintenance costs. It claimed the deleted information was confidential, between the government and the companies leasing out the properties.

Selleck said the deleted portions was exactly the information he was after.

"We wanted to be able to compare lease rates in different places where there was not as much competition," he said.

So Selleck and the CBC appealed to the government's information and privacy commissioner, who upheld the department's decision.

Then it went to court.

Vertes ruled the rents were public information, and not exempt from disclosure under the act, because it "was not information obtained by the government in confidence."

However, the department can withhold the operating and maintenance costs, he ruled, because this information was given in confidence and is not readily available by public means.

Selleck said he was satisfied with the ruling.

"I'm glad the court has agreed we should be getting the main information we wanted," he said.

"I'm also glad we could set some precedence on this act. This will not only benefit reporters but anyone who wants access to information in the Northwest Territories."

Bruce Rattray, deputy minister of public works, said the department is not displeased with the decision.

"We were looking for clarification on releasing this type of document," he said. "The decision tells us what we can and cannot release. That's what we wanted."

He said public works will not appeal and will release the documents as soon as the department is sure the building owners will not appeal.

Selleck said he is pleased Vertes also pointed out some confusing wording in the act, which was made law in 1996.

Vertes was especially concerned about the role of the information and privacy commissioner and the disparities in the French and English versions of the official document.

The commissioner has no authority to enforce his or her recommendations, according to the wording of the act, Vertes wrote.

"So, could it be that the legislature intended to create a position that performs inconsequential functions?" Vertes wrote.

Selleck said he will continue his investigation once the government releases the rental information to him.

"We're going to be persistent on this," he said.