Province urged to disclose fees for Cat ferry
The province’s information and privacy commissioner said last week the Liberal government should disclose the amount of management fees it paid to Bay Ferries Ltd., to operate the high-speed ferry service between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine.
Catherine Tully said in a report released Dec. 17 that evidence does not support the Transportation Department’s claim that disclosing the information would harm both the economic interests of the department and competitive position of Bay Ferries, the private company that runs the service.
“The evidence offered falls well short of the legal standard,” Tully said in her report. “Instead, the evidence offered consisted of conclusionary statements of general assertions of risk. The commissioner recommends full disclosure of the ferry service funding agreement.”
The transportation department has 30 days to make decision on the recommendation, Marla MacInnis, a spokesperson for the department, said.
The province announced the completion of an agreement with the ferry operator in March 2016, withholding from the public agreement information relating to management fees that included the incentive payment and operating subsidy payments for the first two years of operation.
In its published public accounts, the department revealed that it paid Bay Ferries $13,100,000 for the fiscal year ending March 31 2016, $10,248,421 in 2017 and $13,964,393 in 2018. But in response to three access to information requests, the department advised that it was withholding details about management fees under the harm to economic interest exemption. It argued that total operational costs could be calculated if the management fee were to be released but the commissioner countered that such a calculation would be impossible because of missing information on total revenue, ticket revenue details and additional payments.
“The evidence establishes that the only information that would be disclosed if the base management fees were released to the applicants is the base management fee,” Tully concluded.
Tully also concluded that the department failed to make its case that the management fee information was supplied in confidence.
“There is a justifiably high democratic expectation of transparency around the expenditure of public money,” Tully said.
That is the transparency that Stephen McNeil promised when he first ran for the premier’s job five years ago.
“Taxpayer dollars pay the management fee and taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent,” Opposition Leader Tim Houston said in a news release.
Houston said the Progressive Conservative caucus submitted a Freedom of Information request about the management fees more than two years ago and it expects the Transportation Department to comply with the commissioner’s recommendation.
Houston said that despite Tully’s comprehensive report, the Information and Privacy commissioner does not have the authority to enforce her orders and recommendations.
“The reality is, the McNeil Liberals can ignore this report and suffer no consequences,” Houston said. “They are making a mockery of the province’s FOIPOP system.”
The PC leader said the premier can begin to make good on his commitment “to make Nova Scotia the most open and transparent province in the country,” by immediately releasing the Bay Ferries management fees.
Both Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines and Premier Stephen McNeil said last week the fees wouldn’t be released as it could be commercial harmfully to ferry operator if the total cost to operate the service was made public.
The Cat ferry carried just shy of 52,000 passengers during its 2018 season – its best season since it returned to the international ferry route three years ago. For the coming season Bay Ferries is eyeing Bar Harbor as its U.S. port.