Bridge com­mis­sion im­pos­si­ble

Why is it so hard to view the min­utes from Hal­i­fax Har­bour Bridges’ board meet­ings?

The Coast - - THE CITY - BY LU XU

It

was late Jan­uary when I first ap­proached Hal­i­fax Har­bour Bridges try­ing to ob­tain a copy of the Crown cor­po­ra­tion’s board min­utes. It didn’t go so well.

“We re­ally don’t feel like it’s nec­es­sary to share the min­utes,” says HHB com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager Ali­son Mac­Don­ald.

Hal­i­fax Har­bour Bridges’ board mem­bers— some of whom are politi­cians them­selves—are ap­pointed by elected of­fi­cials. The com­mis­sion bor­rows mil­lions of dol­lars from the prov­ince to build pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture. De­spite those facts, HHB doesn’t pub­lish the min­utes of its board meet­ings and those meet­ings aren’t open to the pub­lic.

The com­mis­sion em­pha­sizes it’s not a gov­ern­ment body and its rev­enue is gen­er­ated en­tirely through tolls. Mac­Don­ald also notes the com­mis­sion pub­lishes an­nual re­ports and other pub­lic doc­u­ments.

“We feel like we are very trans­par­ent as an or­ga­ni­za­tion,” she says. Mayor Mike Sav­age dis­agrees. “I don’t see why it has to be pri­vate,” says Sav­age. “My pref­er­ence is that the meet­ings will be open and min­utes will be avail­able.”

The provin­cial Crown cor­po­ra­tion—which op­er­ates un­der HHB, but legally is named the Hal­i­fax-Dart­mouth Bridge Com­mis­sion—makes all main­te­nance, op­er­a­tional and ad­min­is­tra­tive de­ci­sions re­lated to the city’s two har­bour-span­ning bridges. The city ap­points two civil­ians and two politi­cians to the HHB board, and the prov­ince ap­points the rest. While it’s owned by the prov­ince as a Crown cor­po­ra­tion, the com­mis­sion op­er­ates at arms-length.

“We are com­pletely funded by rev­enue gen­er­ated by the tolls and re­ceive no fund­ing from the gov­ern­ment at any level,” states Mac­Don­ald.

Hal­i­fax Har­bour Bridges does, how­ever, re­ceive mil­lions of dol­lars in loans from the prov­ince. Nova Sco­tia loaned HHB $160 mil­lion in 2015 for the Big Lift re-deck­ing. All of that debt is to be paid off through toll fees.

In early Fe­bru­ary I filed a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest for the board min­utes re­lat­ing to that debt and other costs as­so­ci­ated with the Big Lift. Kate Sul­li­van, HHB’s FOIPOP ad­min­is­tra­tor, tells me over the phone she “can’t guar­an­tee what we could send to you.”

It’s not the first time the bridge com­mis­sion has shown re­luc­tance to hon­our a FOIPOP re­quest.

For­mer Daily News jour­nal­ist Pe­ter G. McLaughlin filed a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest for the com­mis­sion’s min­utes back in 1993. It was re­jected.

“I don’t think I or my ed­i­tor was too sur­prised,” he says. “We knew that we were push­ing the bound­aries a lit­tle bit.”

The Hal­i­fax-Dart­mouth Bridge Com­mis­sion had bor­rowed money from for­eign banks and took a bath be­cause of fall­ing cur­rency. That’s when the news­room started to won­der who rec­om­mended the loan and why the com­mis­sion de­cided to go to for­eign fi­nan­cial mar­kets.

“We just sim­ply wanted to get some an­swers,” McLaughlin says.

His re­quest was re­jected on the ba­sis that the bridge com­mis­sion was, at the time, an in­de­pen­dent body that didn’t fall un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act. The Daily News ap­pealed the de­ci­sion and fi­nally suc­ceeded in re­ceiv­ing the board’s min­utes.

“We be­lieve, in a way, you are a pub­lic body,” says McLaughlin. “You are spend­ing pub­lic money. You are mak­ing de­ci­sions in the pub­lic in­ter­est.”

Now, 25 years later, the cur­rent amended FOIPOP act does list the Hal­i­fax-Dart­mouth Bridge Com­mis­sion specif­i­cally as one of the de­part­ments sub­ject to Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion.

Toby Men­del, pres­i­dent of the Cen­tre for Law and Democ­racy, says that makes the com­mis­sion’s oft-used FOIPOP ex­cuse of not be­ing a gov­ern­ment depart­ment moot.

“For pur­poses of the [Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion] Act, it doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence if they’re gov­ern­ment or not gov­ern­ment be­cause they are sub­ject to the obli­ga­tions of the Act the same way as any other gov­ern­ment body,” Men­del says.

I fi­nally re­ceived a re­sponse to my FOIPOP on March 27. The com­mis­sion sent me “an ex­cerpt,” to­talling 14 lines, from HHB’s board min­utes re­lat­ing to fi­nanc­ing and costs for the Big Lift.

In a later phone call, Sul­li­van rec­om­mended fine-tun­ing re­quests in the fu­ture and blamed the lim­ited in­for­ma­tion re­leased on a “mu­tual mis­un­der­stand­ing.” If I wanted more in­for­ma­tion about HHB, she said, I should write an­other email.

IS­TOCK

There’s not a lot of info un­der the bridge.

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