Gary Dickson, Saskatchewan's Information and Privacy Commissioner found his request for additional staff rejected for a third consecutive year. Lack of staff has caused unresolved case files to pile up at the commissioner's office.
Requests for investigations by the Office of the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner are being met with letters warning of a 12 to 18 month delay before an investigator can review the file.
“I take no pride in that, but I felt it was better to at least be open and honest so that people have realistic expectations,” said Gary Dickson, Saskatchewan’s information and privacy commissioner.
The commissioner’s office is tasked with resolving inquiries made about any provincial government body or institution under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and the Health Information Protection Act.
The long delays are due to a massive backlog of unresolved case files at the commissioner’s office. According to Dickson, in the first 10 months of 2009 the number of new files opened by his office increased 113 per cent. His staff of three investigators simply can’t keep up with the rising tide of requests. They are already faced with case loads 3 or 4 times higher than their counterparts in other provinces.
“We should finish 80 per cent of these files within five months. In fact, we have some files over three years old,” said Dickson.
As budget day approaches for the Saskatchewan government, one line item that won’t be present is an extra $128,000 for Dickson’s office. He asked for the additional money to cover the cost of hiring another investigator to help with the increased workload. Dickson’s request was rejected by the Board of Internal Economy, the body responsible for overseeing spending by the Legislative Assembly.
Dickson is frustrated at having his request denied, as he has been asking for more staff for three years. The extra staffer he was asking for would not have addressed the backlog, but merely kept it steady.
“I understand the government is in tough, tight financial times, but I think the request was reasonable,” said Dickson. He also noted that the provincial auditor managed to get funding from the cash-strapped government to hire more staff.
Journalists are a group with a vested interest in access to information, as it fuels some of their best work. Under pressure to meet deadlines, a two-year wait for information is likely to kill many stories before they reach the public.
The denial of Dickson’s funding request is “highly unfortunate, but not surprising,” said Murray Mandryk, political columnist for the Leader Post.
Mandryk feels that by withholding new funds from the privacy commissioner, the Wall government has become part of an overall trend among the federal and provincial governments of Canada to “view certain officers as more hindrance then help.”
Mandryk went on to add that, while he may be overly suspicious, the 12 to 18 month delay for access to information requests was chillingly close to the timeframe for the next provincial election.