One year later, quest for Cabinet records lingers

Although several financial reports presented to the Cayman Islands Cabinet have been ordered to be released, the information commissioner still has not ruled on the crucial question of whether minutes of Cabinet meetings themselves should be made public.

In July, The Cayman Compass requested agendas and meetings of Cabinet minutes dating from Jan. 1, 2012. Through various attempts at mediation, that request was narrowed to just eight separate meetings of Cabinet, which is the Cayman Islands highest governing body.

The Cabinet office argued in its submissions to the information commissioner that it would constitute an “unreasonable diversion of resources” to retrieve such records of eight Cabinet meetings. That argument was rejected outright by the commissioner’s office.

However, the question of what, if any sections, of the meeting minutes should be made public was left undecided – mainly because the Cabinet office did not properly argue why those minutes should be exempted from release

Following a series of back-and-forth negotiations in late 2013, newspaper representatives and the Cabinet Secretary’s office attempted a mediation process during which time a number of reports presented to Cabinet were publicly released. But the minutes themselves were kept secret.

“[The Cabinet office] has argued the application of the exemption [to the meeting minutes] … on a hypothetical basis only,” Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers wrote in a decision issued last week. “Therefore, I cannot reach a decision on the application of this exemption.”

The Cabinet office has been ordered to present new and more relevant arguments as to why the Cabinet meeting records should be exempted from release within 45 days. They have been given free rein to use any relevant section of the Cayman Islands Freedom of Information Law in seeking to exempt the records.

Explaining his decision to give the public authority more time to respond, when it had already taken them a year to provide an inadequate response, Mr. Liebaers noted that it was likely any decision ordering the Cabinet office to release the minutes in full would be appealed to the Grand Court anyway.

The request for the Cabinet meeting records, according to the information commissioner, seeks only the topics, motions and decisions relative to each item discussed.

The Compass had initially sought meeting agendas, discussions between Cabinet members or other meeting participants, and how individual Cabinet members voted.

Mr. Liebaers noted there was some confusion during the information commissioner’s deliberations on the open records request concerning precisely what information was being sought. Eventually, the commissioner decided to include Cabinet agendas, but leave out the voting records and discussions or deliberations of the Cabinet.

Factual reports

The information commissioner also ordered the release of five reports that were presented to Cabinet during the time the open records request was made by the Compass.

Those reports included three financial statements of the Tourism Attraction Board for 2007, 2008 and 2009. Also included were financial statements for the Ministry of Finance, Tourism and Development for 2012 and financial statements for the Portfolio of the Civil Service in 2012.

These reports would typically be made public in the Legislative Assembly and can be deferred from release under the Freedom of Information Law for a reasonable period of time, pending their release.

However, in this case Mr. Liebaers ruled that withholding the reports for a year and a half after their completion would not be considered a reasonable time. The Cabinet office was given 45 days to make public the reports or challenge the information commissioner’s decision to the Grand Court.

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