“We apologize for the inconvenience”: Northern Village of Pinehouse and transparency, accountability . . . .

 

Earlier this month, Fred Pederson, a long-time resident of the Northern Village of Pinehouse, who was more or less expelled from the community in March 2019, made an enquiry to the Village office:

The law says that the annual financial statement for northern municipalities must be released to the public no later than September 1st in the year following.

Is the 2019 audited annual financial statement for the Northern Village of Pinehouse available for the public to see, now that September 1st has come and gone?  This is especially important this year because we are going into the village election campaign on October 7th.

 

It took nearly three weeks, but last Tuesday, Fred received a response from the Village administrator:

From: Martine Smith <nvp@sasktel.net>
Date: Tue, Sep 22, 2020 at 3:45 PM
Subject: Re: Requesting Northern Village of Pinehouse financial statement, 2019
To: <Fred Pederson>

Good afternoon

The auditors will be in next week. The financial statements will be done in approximately a month.

We apologize for the inconvenience.

Martine Smith

 

It appears that, for the Village administration, not adhering to the law is inconsequential, a mere “inconvenience.”  So we have a Village council and administration who knew they could not possibly get their 2019 financial statement completed by the legislative deadline, but nevertheless moved the municipal election ahead by more than one month before the standard date followed elsewhere in the province (Nov. 9).  It’s almost like Mayor Mike and his council were determined that the 2019 financial picture remain hidden to village electors before they were required to place their votes on October 7.  (See “Three Big Questions Citizens of Pinehouse should be asking in the Village Election 2020” posted four weeks ago.)

That attitude has a long history of indifference and neglect, one that has characterized Mike Natomagan’s term as mayor and Martine Smith’s as administrator.  Who can forget the now famous words of Mayor Mike when asked about not meeting the obligations of the freedom of information law and the inquiry that resulted? ‘We’ll get to it when we get to it;’ Pinehouse mayor says freedom of information requests not a priority, read the headline in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix on 22 January 2019.

Mike Natomagan. Photo by Liam Richard, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, 16 Jan 2019.

 

The Northern Village of Pinehouse has since passed its Access to Information Policy (November 2019), which clearly states,

The Village is committed to supporting the concepts of transparency, accountability, accessibility and participation and as such is committed to proactively providing information through its Open Government Program. Open Government consists of three pillars: Open Information, Open Data and Open Engagement.

But the Village administration is still struggling to meet those lofty goals.  Let’s list the current outstanding Access to Information (ATI) issues that remain, some requests made to the Village office and some to the Provincial Government.

  • In June this year, an ATI request was sent to the Village asking for “remuneration and expense claims, receipts, invoices and payment vouchers for the Mayor and all Village Councilors, January 1 – December 31, 2018.” This was the year for which a forensic audit was ordered and the last financial statement released to the public.  It was 2018 when the mayor submitted expense claims of $28,392 and one councillor (Walter Smith) submitted expense claims of $12,346 even though he was on council for only a little over six months.  The Village office estimated there were 130 pages to be copied and asked for $212.50 to provide them (i.e. $1.63/page).  That estimate was challenged and is still under review by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC).
  • In October 2019, an ATI request was sent to the Ministry of Government Relations asking for documentation about the supervision of Northern Village of Pinehouse by Northern Municipal Services manager Hasan Akhtar earlier that year. That documentation was denied by the Ministry, who claimed releasing it would interfere with the Vancise Inquiry.  But even when the Inquiry report was completed and submitted, the Ministry refused to provide the information.  That determination has been challenged and the matter is still under review by OIPC since December.
  • In September 2019 (a year ago), an ATI request was sent to the Ministry of Government Relations asking for copies of communications between the Pinehouse village administration and Brad Henry, Executive Director of Northern Municipal Services (NMS). It was an attempt to determine how much NMS knew about the ongoing internal problems in Pinehouse municipal governance over several years. After narrowing down the scope of the request to reduce costs, payment of $640 was made, and a package of over 400 pages was received in February this year, most of which were heavily redacted.  We also suspect that the documentation is incomplete.  So we are only a little the wiser as to what was actually going on.  The response from the Ministry was formally challenged with OIPC in February, and we are still waiting for that review process to begin some seven months later.

From all of this, you can see that “the concepts of transparency, accountability, accessibility and participation,” set out in the Village access to information policy, are still lost somewhere in the fog out over Pinehouse Lake.

There are dark secrets deeply hidden in local and provincial government offices in Pinehouse, LaRonge and Regina that some people hope will never be revealed. But you can rest assured; we keep trying!