“Severe” budget cuts imposed on the Cayman Islands Information Commissioner’s office are preventing it from determining whether public authorities are complying with the Freedom of Information Law, the office reported last week.
The information commissioner’s office is the government agency created to hear and decide appeals in requests for public records when there is a dispute involving the parties to the application. In addition, the five-person office also serves as a public educator and sometimes enforcer for the Freedom of Information Law, 2007.
During the period of January through March of this year the office has “seriously felt” the effects of budget cuts imposed on its operation.
“The absence of a senior analyst, a post which was not funded for 2012/13 [current budget], coupled with an increase in the number and complexity of appeals, has meant that the Information Commissioner’s Office has been unable to carry out necessary investigations into public authorities’ compliance with the law,” a quarterly report from the office states. Training budgets for the office have also been sparse or non-existent, the report noted.
In addition, the office’s first major legal challenge – a judicial review application filed by Governor Duncan Taylor over records related to the Operation Tempura police corruption investigation – could run up a substantial legal bill. Right now, the local firm Broadhurst is representing the information commissioner in the matter with no “up-front funding”.
“The legal and professional fees budget of the Information Commissioner’s Office was completely stripped away during budget cuts,” the quarterly report read. “These issues…have the effect of negatively affecting the ability of [Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert] to effectively meet her obligations under the [Freedom of Information] Law, and they therefore interfere with the independence of this office.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office has considered more than 100 appeal requests since January 2009. Appeals of open records requests are often lengthy, taking months or in a few cases, years to complete.
The threats to her office’s independent from the central government were raised by Mrs. Dilbert during a recent Freedom of Information conference in Kingston, Jamaica.
No direct political influence has been exerted on the office, but Mrs. Dilbert told the Jamaica Environmental Trust conference attendees in March that there are other ways to skin a cat. “One way we do feel hampered is through the provision of resources,” Mrs. Dilbert told a group of about 50 attendees at the conference. “Bottom line, that’s always going to be a problem.” The information commissioner’s annual budget has been reduced, along with most other government entities, since 2009 as the Cayman Islands has struggled through a seemingly never-ending series of budget troubles.
Mrs. Dilbert was chosen to speak on the topic of enforcement methods for Freedom of Information laws, helping to advise other Caribbean countries on best-practice methods.
Despite the budget troubles, Mrs. Dilbert said compliance with the FOI Law has been good. In 29 appeals that have moved to the hearing stage before the information commissioner’s office since 2009, just one has proceeded to a judicial review challenge in the courts.
“The one judicial review we do have is with the governor’s office,” she said. “Obviously, my office must be independent because the governor is suing us.”