FOI hearing over gov’t salaries

Should the salaries of government employees be made public?

That’s the question to be considered by Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert as her office convenes its first appeal hearing on an open records request. That request was made by Cayman Free Press on 6 January.

CFP has requested the salaries, titles, bonuses paid, job descriptions and travel expenses for all employees of the Government Information Services office for the 2008/09 budget year.

The proceedings will be conducted via the postal service/e-mail; there will be no public showdown in a hearing-room setting. The first submissions in the hearing are due by 26 June from both the appellant, Cayman Free Press, and the government agency, GIS.

Both sides will be allowed to reply to the other’s initial submissions no later than 7 July.

Mrs. Dilbert said her office has dealt with about seven appeals made under the Freedom of Information Law thus far, but she said this is the first issue that has required a formal hearing.

‘We’re very pleased at how the process is going,’ she said.

In this case, all information requested save the specific salaries and any bonuses paid to GIS employees was produced by government agencies. The general pay scale of each position within GIS was released. Those pay scales provided a salary range only.

GIS Acting Chief Information Officer Angela Piercy denied the request for specific salaries on 1 May, nearly four months after the initial request and well outside the timeline set forth in the law, stating that she believed it was an ‘unreasonable request’ for personal information.

CFP appealed asking the Information Commissioner to reconsider the issue.

‘We believe the salaries of government employees should be made public, because it is the public who pays their salaries,’ Cayman Free Press Editor Tammie C. Chishom said. ‘It’s important that the Freedom of Information Law be used to its fullest extent so that it works for the good of all.’

The hearing will be critical in defining future cases where others making FOI requests seek information regarding government salaries.

A press release was issued by the Information Commissioner about the appeal to all local media, identifying the Cayman Free Press (the Compass’ parent company) and the name of the journalist who made the request for the information.

The information commissioner plans to continue publishing both hearing notices and press releases about appeals cases. However, Mrs. Dilbert stressed that in any future appeals cases the names of the applicant or applicants would not be revealed unless those people gave their permission.

‘In this case, we asked the appellant and he had no problem with it,’ she said. ‘But we don’t want to discourage people from making appeals or seeking mediation in FOI cases because they fear identification.’

CFP has made other requests for the specific salaries of former Acting Police Commissioner James Smith and elected members of the Legislative Assembly. Both of those requests were also denied, and are in the process of being appealed.

Mrs. Dilbert said there would be separate hearings held on those matters, as they involved somewhat separate issues from the GIS salary request.

The information commissioner also noted that a ruling from the attorney general’s office had been made regarding the public release of government salaries. But the commissioner’s office has previously stated that the AG doesn’t have the last word in this matter.

‘The public is assured that all appeal decisions by the information commissioner shall be reached independently from both government and any legal advice received from government,’ Deputy Information Commissioner Gary Cordes wrote in a May letter to the Compass.

‘It is for the information commissioner only to rule upon appeals,’ he wrote.