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Release of bureaucrat salary ranges and bonuses in limbo
Privacy commissioner says public has a 'right to know' how much senior GNWT staff are paid

Galit Rodan
Northern News Services
Published Friday, December 2, 2011

Two-year-old recommendations made by the NWT information and privacy commissioner to improve government transparency have still not been instituted and it is unclear whether the 17th assembly will bring about any change.

In May, the Standing Committee on Government Operations - a body made up of MLAs - reviewed the 2009-2010 report by Elaine Keenan Bengts, who called on the government to undertake a comprehensive review of the NWT's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (ATIPP).

Keenan Bengts also made two specific recommendations.

The first, stemming from a complaint in which the GNWT quoted a fee of $7,500 for requested information, was that the GNWT review ATIPP's fee schedule. Keenan Bengts reported she believed the GNWT "used the fee provisions in a clear attempt to limit the right of an individual to challenge the policies of the public body."

Her second recommendation, arising from a response to a complaint brought forward in 2009, was that the legislative assembly consider an amendment to the ATIPP to require proactive disclosure of salaries and bonuses paid to public sector employees earning more than $80,000 per year.

"One of the most important aspects of open and accountable government is the question of how the taxpayers' money is spent," she wrote. "Because a significant portion of government expenditure is dedicated to its employees, it seems to me that the public has a right to know how the highest-level bureaucrats are paid."

Section 23(4)(e) of ATIPP states, "A disclosure of personal information is not an unreasonable invasion of a third party's personal privacy where ... the personal information relates to the third party's classification, salary range, discretionary benefits or employment responsibilities as an officer, employee or member of a public body or as a member of the staff of a member of the executive council."

However - unlike in Ontario where the provincial government annually posts the names and salaries of public sector employees earning $100,000 or more - in the NWT, requests for disclosures of employee bonuses or salaries are processed under the ATIPP act and disclosure of exact salaries or bonuses is considered an unreasonable invasion of privacy.

The standing committee echoed Keenan Bengts' recommendations and also noted "the IPC and Standing Committees have made a number of recommendations over the years for amendments to the act that have not yet been addressed by government."

In its response to the standing committee, dated Aug. 17, the GNWT stated that it would compare its own access-to-information fees with those of other jurisdictions. This review has been initiated by the Department of Justice and is ongoing, said Denise Anderson, the justice department's senior policy advisor on information and privacy.

The government was not as keen to disclose employees' salaries and bonuses, stating, "At this time, the GNWT does not support changes to the existing mechanism to access this type of information; however, the Department of Human Resources will review the merits of a legislated approach and the impacts it may have on the GNWT public service."

Anderson said the GNWT was unable to commit to a legislative change in August, as the 16th assembly was nearing its end, but said the departments of justice and human resources had also initiated a review into the type of legislation that would enable the recommended proactive disclosure. "Whether or not it advances will be based on the priorities of the new government," she said.

The 17th assembly recently met for its priority-setting sessions but there has been no word on amendments to ATIPP.

Glen Abernethy, minister of justice and human resources, and who was a member of the 16th assembly's Standing Committee on Government Operations, declined to be interviewed.

Megan Holsapple, media liaison for the executive branch, said Abernethy had just finished priority-setting sessions and had nothing to say at the present time.

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