EMR admits ATCO talks were negotiations

Citing ongoing negotiations with ATCO, the government is refusing access-to-information requests submitted by the Yukon News. The decision contradicts public statements by officials on the nature of the talks.

Citing ongoing negotiations with ATCO, the government is refusing access-to-information requests submitted by the Yukon News.

The decision contradicts public statements by officials on the nature of the talks.

For seven months, officials have said they are not negotiating with the Alberta-based multinational company.

Now, it’s justifying the withholding of information because there were, in fact, negotiations.

Access-to-information requests for correspondence between ATCO, the Energy, Mines and Resources Department and the Executive Council office were refused to protect, “negotiations carried on, by or for a public body or the government of Yukon.”

Premier Dennis Fentie and other government officials have repeatedly denied the Yukon was negotiating with ATCO to sell managerial control of the publicly owned Yukon Energy Corporation since the talks were made public three months ago.

The Yukon was having “preliminary talks” with ATCO to rationalize Yukon’s electrical grid – currently shared by Yukon Energy and ATCO-subsidiary, Yukon Electrical Company Limited, said Fentie on June 24 in Rotary Park.

Then Fentie called the negotiations “scoping-out discussions” on June 26 in Mayo.

The disclosure of the Yukon’s

negotiating position is at odds with the government’s – and in particular Fentie’s – reason for not informing the cabinet or the public about the talks since they began in October 2008.

In June, Yukon Energy board members resigned after learning of officials’ secret talks with ATCO. Ever since, Fentie’s been tight-lipped about his government’s relationship with ATCO.

In the last three months, those four board members provided more detail on Fentie’s relationship with the multinational energy giant and his refusal to discuss the talks with the board.

Two separate proposals from ATCO, both describing a bid to privatize either the assets or the management of Yukon Energy, were leaked in June and August by board members.

A seven-page, joint-position paper even revealed Fentie held phone conversations with ATCO CEO Nancy Southern earlier this year, asking it to invest in the territory’s public water and sewage infrastructure and housing.

Fentie brushed off the allegations, describing the talks as harmless and routine.

The assertion shielded him from charges he breached parliamentary ethics rules by not informing the minister in charge of Yukon Energy, Jim Kenyon.

“We were still in the analyzing phase of this,” said Shirley Abercrombie, the Energy, Mines and Resources assistant deputy minister tasked by Fentie to lead the ATCO talks.

Abercrombie met with ATCO officials six times in seven months in Calgary to tell it what the government wanted.

These were not negotiations, just normal bureaucratic stuff, she said.

As long as the relationship with ATCO consisted of talks, the work could remain at the departmental level where Fentie had put it – far from the eye of cabinet, Energy, Mines and Resources officials told a news conference two weeks ago.

If the innocuous talks were finalized, and both ATCO and Yukon knew what they wanted from each other, then the department would write a cabinet submission for a mandate to negotiate, said Executive Council deputy minister Janet Moodie, who defended Fentie against charges he breached parliamentary procedure, eroded trust in the government executive and blatantly disregarded the collective nature of decision-making in cabinet.

Through the cabinet submission, Kenyon would be briefed on what Fentie had been up to, said Moodie.

And shortly after, Yukoners would also be allowed to know.

A news release, or a government notice would inform the public when “official” negotiations with ATCO were beginning.

“We were fully prepared to go out and talk about this once we knew whether or not we had some kind of arrangement, or not,” said Abercrombie.

“This is the fourth or fifth time this has been tried and it hasn’t gone anywhere, so I think before we went out to the public on this we wanted to see if we had anything,” she said.

It’s impossible for a small cabal of public servants to usurp cabinet and the Yukon Energy board, said Fentie on August 11. The rules prevent it.

“For any government to make a decision to negotiate with anyone on matters that will be presented to you requires sanction by cabinet,” said Fentie.

“Therefore, to have negotiations, secret or otherwise, are an impossibility by anyone in this government.”

The News will be appealing the decision to refuse the information request.

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com

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