Although their support largely came with a caveat, all five political candidates who participated in a public debate last week at the University College of the Cayman Islands said they would back the release of more information, sooner from within the government’s Cabinet.
The Cayman Islands Cabinet, formerly known as Executive Council or ExCo, now consists of the five elected ministers of government, the governor, the deputy governor, the attorney general and the Cabinet secretary. The Cabinet generally decides on all government business, including whether legislation should go before parliament for a vote, but excluding any matters than fall within the specific purview of the governor.
Although decisions of this high-ranking body are sometimes discussed in public, Cabinet publishes no agendas for its meetings and members typically do not discuss the deliberations during those meetings in public. Other members of the public can attend Cabinet meetings but only at the express invitation of ministers.
Two issues were raised for the debate panel at UCCI last Wednesday. First, whether the minutes of Cabinet meetings might be made available before the existing 20-year exemption time limit set in Cayman’s Freedom of Information Law. And second, whether a running report of non-sensitive government business could be maintained, whether at weekly media briefings or in another medium.
Deputy Premier Rolston Anglin said during the debate that members of Cayman’s interim government have discussed releasing what he called a “Cabinet minute journal” where members could decide on a weekly basis what material would be released.
Mr. Anglin said “a number of items” that come before Cabinet on a weekly basis would not be considered sensitive in terms of national security, commercially-restricted information and the like. Many of the items eventually end up getting reported in the government gazettes anyway, Tourism Minister Cline Glidden Jr. said on Thursday during a media briefing.
“We have to move toward a right-to-know environment,” Mr. Anglin said.
Other debate panel members, none of whom have held elected office or ever participated in Cabinet, said they generally believed more information could be released from Cabinet and sooner.
“The 20-year period [defined in the FOI Law for most exemptions that apply to government-held records] is perhaps too long,” said People’s Progressive Movement Bodden Town candidate Wayne Panton. “I think there are appropriate restrictions that can be put in place … we can narrow it to commercially-sensitive information and national security.”
According to section 6(2) of Cayman’s open records law: “The exemption of a record or part thereof from disclosure shall not apply after the record has been in existence for 20 years unless otherwise stated in this law.”
Coalition for Cayman-endorsed candidate for George Town Roy McTaggart said an “appropriate balance” had to be struck with regard to Cabinet information.
“I support the idea of Freedom of Information, but I don’t believe that national security would be the only thing that would have to be excluded from disclosure,” Mr. McTaggart said.
PPM George Town candidate Marco Archer suggested a five-year waiting period on the release of Cabinet minutes, rather than 20. Independent candidate Jacqueline Haynes said as long as Cabinet transparency didn’t interfere with the public interest, she had no problem with releasing more information from the meetings either.
In general, Mr. Anglin said he thought government’s next logical step in the journey toward more openness was to enact “sunshine laws” for public meetings of boards and commissions in general. He said making more Cabinet decisions public was part of that process.
“We have to open our board meetings up,” Mr. Anglin said. “Sunshine legislation is an obvious next step. There will be times when some of the boards will have to meet [privately].”
Mr. Archer said more open meetings might actually save government money in the long run.
“It reduces the time between what was discussed and when minutes were published,” he said. “I don’t see anything to lose by opening the meetings and everything to gain.”
Ms Haynes took a slightly different view: “Opening the board meetings is one option, but for me I think the subject goes a little bit deeper. I would like to see these boards set up … so they are not appointed by politicians.”