The BC Liberal government waited until two days after the provincial election to finally give theBreaker documents about the $235 million transferred to a treeplanting society that is not covered by freedom of information laws.
Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations, announced $85 million in public funding for the fledgling Forest Enhancement Society of B.C. (FESBC) in his Feb. 26, 2016 speech to the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals annual meeting. Premier Christy Clark gave Kamloops-based FESBC another $150 million from taxpayers in February 2017 when she posed for photos at the Canfor seedling nursery in Prince George. She estimated FESBC would create 3,000 rural jobs over five years.
On Feb. 22 — more than two-and-a-half months before the election — theBreaker asked to see copies of funding applications, assessments, recommendations and approvals about the $235 million transfer.
In mid-March, the government told theBreaker that it would delay the release of records by an extra 30 business days until May 23. After theBreaker complained, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner set April 28 as the deadline for disclosure of finance ministry documents.
On April 10, the day before the election formally began, the government told theBreaker that the forests ministry was “not in possession of records” — a statement later disproven.
The government ignored the OIPC’s April 28 deadline and sat on the documents until after the Clark Liberals lost their majority on May 9. Two recounts are pending and 176,000 absentee ballots must be counted. The Clark Liberals may regain a majority, lose the majority to the NDP or form a coalition with the Green Party.
Since the Legislature’s April 11 dissolution, Clark-loyal Deputy Minister Athana Mentelopoulos has controlled the finance ministry, which includes the central government’s FOI office, Information Access Operations.
The records sent to theBreaker by the finance ministry on May 11 are scant and heavily censored. They include Treasury Board briefing notes from January 2016 and January 2017 and a letter to Thomson from Finance Minister Mike de Jong.
One briefing note explains how the program stemmed from a September 2015 announcement to the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention. The government pledged to develop a forest enhancement program for wildfire prevention and rehabilitation, and wildlife habitat restoration. The briefing notes both mention that option 1 was adopted, but no details of a second option are visible. The government censored records because it considers the information to be policy advice or recommendations, covered by cabinet confidentiality and it fears harming intergovernmental
The society board includes two public servants — assistant deputy ministers of forests Dave Peterson (finance chair) and Mary Sue Maloughney (human resources chair) — retired chief forester Jim Snetsinger, Duz Cho Logging director Chief Derek Orr and retired West Fraser Lumber executive Wayne Clogg.
When it knocked-off the NDP and came to power in the May 16, 2001 election, the Liberals vowed to make B.C. the most open, democratic and accountable province in the country. The party instead created agencies beyond the reach of the FOI law, to hide spending and contracting details from taxpayers. The Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics organizing committee, known as VANOC, and its ally, 2010 Legacies Now, were the most famous such agencies.
In 2015, FOI expert Stanley Tromp told the Legislature’s special bipartisan committee reviewing B.C.’s information and privacy statutes that the law should be expanded to cover any institution established by the Legislature or a public agency that is publicly funded, controlled or performing a public function. The committee’s May 2016 report recommended extending the law to “any board, committee, commissioner, panel, agency or corporation that is created or owned by a public body and all the members or officers of which are appointed or chosen by or under the authority of that public body.”
The Clark Liberals, however, neither amended the law nor did they choose to designate FESBC a public body for the purpose of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.