The Cayman Islands government’s refusal to comply with an open records request has raised more questions about the doings of our elected representatives, again.
When will our entire government finally realise its records belong to the public?
This newspaper submitted a request under the territory’s Freedom of Information Law, 2009, to gain access to the agendas and minutes of Cabinet meetings since January 2012.
Those records of Cabinet proceedings are fundamental documents underpinning the functions of government. Could there be a more basic or straightforward information request?
Yet, the Cabinet Office recently informed us it is refusing to hand over the documents, citing a section of the FOI Law exempting records containing advice for and deliberations of Cabinet.
Cabinet’s outright refusal of the request flies in the face of public statements made by Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert, who in this newspaper just five months ago expressed her frustrations with political candidates’ ignorance of the FOI Law, particularly on this specific issue. Ms Dilbert has clearly stated the exemption does not cover decisions made by Cabinet or factual reports prepared for Cabinet, and that advice to Cabinet should be released if it is in the public interest. The law does not exempt Cabinet minutes in toto.
Does government pay attention to what the information commissioner says?
Despite Ms Dilbert’s public explanations of the “deliberations” exemption, Cabinet nevertheless has chosen to hide its records behind that very exemption, as it has in several instances in the past.
Sadly, we cannot say we were caught off-guard by Cabinet’s decision, given our experience extracting public documents from government officials. The surprise is that it took Cabinet a mere 26 days to respond to our request with its repudiation.
While the FOI Law states that public authorities must respond to a request “as soon as practicable”, the law sets a hard deadline of 30 days from receiving the request, with an option to extend the deadline for another 30 days. Frankly, we would not have been shocked if Cabinet had taken the full two months before dismissing our request.
As it stands now, we have asked Cabinet Secretary Samuel Rose to review the response to our FOI request. We trust Mr. Rose, who previously was an information manager in the Ministry of Finance, to be well acquainted with Ms Dilbert’s position on Cabinet records.
We concede the importance of public officials being able to engage freely in frank discussions, and we expect significant portions of Cabinet minutes to qualify for exemption under the FOI Law.
Until we receive a satisfactory response to our records request, we can only guess at decisions made by leaders of three distinct governments during a time period pivotal to Cayman’s future. What actions has Cabinet taken regarding the Dart group? China Harbour Engineering Company? Ex-Premier McKeeva Bush’s legal situation? The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman? Were those topics brought before Cabinet at all? Which Cabinet decisions were shared publicly? Which were not?
Has Cabinet been retaining agendas and minutes properly? What form do the minutes take? Are Cabinet proceedings recorded? Are government ministers able to revise Cabinet minutes, as US lawmakers are?
What is the public benefit of keeping Cabinet minutes if they are to be kept secret for 20 years?
Cayman’s FOI Law is a hallmark of the People’s Progressive Movement’s previous administration.
Now it’s their turn to adhere to it.