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Saskatchewan is considering new requirements for northern municipalities to receive provincial funding, as residents are raising concerns over a lack of financial accountability.
At least three municipalities are behind deadline to make their finances publicly available going into local elections. Residents say this leaves northerners unable to make informed decisions at the ballot box.
The province said it is looking at implementing eligibility conditions for northern municipal revenue sharing (MRS) grants following a series of inquiries by a group dedicated to information access and accountability in the north.
Access to information advocate D’Arcy Hande, along with eight concerned citizens, sent a letter to Lori Carr, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Government Relations, on Aug. 13, arguing that late financial statements from northern municipalities will put upcoming local elections in jeopardy.
They say residents won’t be able to hold their municipal governments financially accountable.
“Those financial statements have not even been produced, much less actually released. Your Ministry was to have received those financial statements by July 1st,” Hande said in the letter.
Hande said that while the release of financial statements to the public is required by law from all municipalities as of Sept. 1, that has not happened in at least three cases.
Hande questioned the fact that northern municipalities may receive provincial grants without fully accounting for funds previously received.
Carr’s deputy minister, Greg Miller, said in a written response that the ministry is looking at implementing eligibility requirements for northern MRS grants.
“My concern is that the people of northern Saskatchewan aren’t going to the polls in many cases with all the facts known," D'Arcy Hande. #munipoli #skpoli
“The ministry recognizes that grant eligibility requirements can provide a mechanism to encourage and promote legislative compliance and good governance,” Miller wrote.
The ministry said the grants are currently provided on an unconditional basis, with amounts determined by the costs faced by these municipalities when delivering core municipal services.
But Hande said the province already has the power to enforce municipal accountability.
“I think it’s being very disingenuous to indicate that somehow the provincial legislation precludes the minister’s intervention,” Hande told Canada’s National Observer on Friday.
He said there is a “total lack of accountability at the municipal governance level in northern Saskatchewan,” and that action needs to be taken by the province before elections start.
He said Minister Carr has oversight over the Northern Municipal Trust account, which handles the grants.
“The province does have the responsibility for oversight in municipal governments not just in northern Saskatchewan, but all over the province,” Hande said.
Hande said the province is taking a “step in the right direction” by looking at imposing eligibility requirements, but questioned how committed the ministry is to making that happen. He said changes would need to be enforced quickly.
“My concern is that the people of northern Saskatchewan aren’t going to the polls in many cases with all the facts known. I hope the candidates for municipal councils are taking this idea of financial accountability seriously because we know there are lots of abuses in the north.”
Hande and his team have filed numerous access to information requests to northern municipalities, but he’s frustrated with response times due to what Hande called an “understaffed” information commissioner’s office.
He said more than 400 review files are waiting to be opened across Saskatchewan, despite the information commissioner being allocated additional resources by the province.
“They’re still completely snowed under and I think it’s because municipal governments have gotten the signal that there are no consequences,” Hande said.
Michael Bramadat-Willcock/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada's National Observer