Freedom of Information brings sunshine

This year saw the implementation of the Freedom of Information Law, a long-awaited legislation that promised to open the doors of secrecy and make the workings of government more transparent.

Since 5 January, when the law came into effect, hundreds of requests have been made by members of the public and the press. Of those, 26 have been appealed and two had led to formal hearings.

A Freedom of Information Unit was set up in 2007, before the law was in effect but after it had been passed by the Legislative Assembly, to educate and train those officers. Since then, things have changed and departments are becoming more accustomed to the so-called ‘sunshine law’.

‘Definitely, acceptance has grown,’ Natasha Bodden, policy analyst at the FOI Unit told the Caymanian Compass earlier this year. ‘When we first brought up FOI and started telling [civil servants]…there was an air of ‘What? We have to do what?”

Despite fears of an abundance of paperwork and an overload of work for departments and agencies, the vast majority of open records requests have been answered within the 30-day timeline prescribed by the FOI Law.

More than 90 per cent of those requests had been answered in a timely fashion from January through September, according to the FOI Unit.

In October, the then-chief secretary, and now acting governor, Donovan Ebanks, described the FOI Law in a Legislative Assembly meeting as a ‘nice accessory’, to the annoyance of the Information Director Jennifer Dilbert.

Dilbert said the ‘accessory’ statement was typical of the stance the old guard of the Cayman Islands civil service had taken in response to the implementation law.

‘We are still struggling,’ Mrs. Dilbert said of her office, which handles public appeals of instances where government records have been withheld from release.

The commissioner essentially acts as a referee when there are disputes between government agencies and those requesting government records about what should be released.

Each of the 88 Cayman Islands government agencies, departments and statutory bodies, has at least one information manager responsible for accepting requests for information from the public.

Among the requests that have been made to various government bodies have included funding approved by Cabinet in the run-up to May’s election; how much money the Boatswain’s Bay/Turtle Farm operation is losing; in-transit passenger movements made through the Owen Roberts International Airport in 2008; and the number of firearms legally imported into Cayman since 2004.

FOI requests have also revealed the worst private sewage treatment systems on the island; the cost of the Jazz Festival (CI$1,149,092); and that there had been a more than 12 per cent drop in foreign workers in Cayman since January this year.

Also revealed under the new law were the salaries paid to Members of the Legislative Assembly; the number of Royal Cayman Islands Police Service boat accidents and the cost of repairing the vessels; the number of unemployed Caymanians getting assistance from the Department of Employment Relations; and the cost of investigations into the police between September 2007 and early June 2009 ($5.6 million).

The number of permanent residents on the island was also revealed for the first time under an FOI request.

One of the most contentious requests, from the Caymanian Compass, related to government salaries. The FOI Commissioner ruled that the salary bands of civil servants in the lower echelons of the Civil Service should be narrowed and disclosed, and that the salaries of civil servants in senior positions should be revealed.

This led to the FOI Commissioner’s first appeal hearing in June when Chief Information Officer Angela Piercy challenged the decision. Ms Dilbert went on to rule that Ms Piercy should disclose her salary. Mrs. Piercy stated she planned to appeal the case to the Grand Court but later decided against it.

The FOI Law has also proved troublesome for the recently departed Governor Stuart Jack. He had decided not to release the findings of a judicial tribunal into the behaviour of Justice Priya Levers, but following the receipt of an FOI request from the Compass, he said he would release the report. This decision was challenged by Ms Levers and her lawyers and as of this month, the report has still not been released publicly.

Since its implementation, hundreds of open records requests have been filed by members of the public and the media.