FOI chief hits ‘brick wall’

Cayman Islands Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert said this week that she had been frustrated by government bureaucracy in her efforts to get the country’s first freedom of information regime up and running.

Mrs. Dilbert

Mrs. Dilbert

The commissioner warned those using the Freedom of Information Law (2007) to seek government records that their requests may face delays longer than those allowed in the law for a couple of reasons.

Mrs. Dilbert said she was ‘concerned that the initial (FOI) application process with public authorities is already taking too long,’ adding that she was mindful that delays in the open records appeals process would also further prevent records requests from being answered in a reasonable time frame.

The commissioner noted that her office had a received 21 appeals of open records requests that were initially denied by public authorities, some of which were detailed and complex. Seven of the 21 appeals had been received in June.

In addition to the large number of appeals, Mrs. Dilbert noted that the information commissioner’s office had to struggle with both accommodation and staffing in the first several months of its operation.

She said the government had intended to appoint the information commissioner position six months before the FOI Law came into effect, but said she was actually appointed on the day the law took effect, 5 January, 2009.

The information commissioner’s office started out with no accommodation, no supplies, no equipment and no staff.

‘These first six months have been very stressful and very frustrating,’ Mrs. Dilbert said. ‘I have been subject to much government bureaucracy, especially relating to staffing, and the independence of my office has not been established.’

According to the FOI Law (2007) the information commissioner position was created in the same form as Cayman’s auditor general and complaints commissioner in that it was expected to act independently of the civil service and political arm of government.

However, one slight difference between the FOI commissioner and the other two offices is that the FOI commissioner may be removed by Cabinet, where the auditor general and complaints commissioner can only be removed by the governor acting in his or her sole discretion.

Despite coming up against what she termed as ‘a brick wall’ at almost every turn, Mrs. Dilbert said an FOI office manager and a deputy commissioner were appointed in the spring. Two more staff members were hired on 19 June to assist with processing appeals.

Mrs. Dilbert noted that her office had also received some assistance from the information commissioner in British Columbia by way of training and personnel.

In summary, Mrs. Dilbert said ‘the new government had not yet had a chance to follow through on their stated commitment to support FOI’ but that she was looking forward to some positive input in the future.

Although there had been some start up problems, Mrs. Dilbert said it appeared the majority of government authorities were handling FOI requests well, and that the vast majority of open records requests had been resolved before they reached the appeals stage.

The information commissioner has previously said it was her office’s intention to mediate most appeals, but that they would undertake their first formal hearing on an appeal in the beginning of July. That request was made by the Caymanian Compass and Cayman Free Press..

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