The Progressives political party, which first advocated for the creation and passage of the Cayman Islands Freedom of Information Law a decade ago, may be having second thoughts, according to comments made by its leader in the Legislative Assembly.
“The sheer number of Mickey Mouse FOI requests that are being submitted creates such a burden on the system and on the people who have to [respond to them], what I call legitimate FOI requests are often not dealt with as expeditiously as they should be,” Premier Alden McLaughlin said Thursday during a meeting of the LA’s Finance Committee. “When the sheer volume of work and expense that is involved in answering questions gets too great … the system starts to grind more slowly and more slowly.
“There’s only so much in terms of resources that can be devoted in terms of dealing with FOI which, quite frankly and realistically from a country standpoint, is an unproductive use of time,” Premier McLaughlin said. “It’s part of the transparency process, but it doesn’t achieve anything as far as the government, as delivery of services is concerned.”
Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers, who was traveling out of the country at the time Mr. McLaughlin made his remarks, said Friday that he was caught completely off-guard.
“I am surprised that the premier has never shared these concerns with the information commissioner’s office,” Mr. Liebaers said. “I suppose government would like to be able to determine which request is legitimate and which isn’t. Fortunately, that is not the system the FOI Law provides for and it would not be a system worthy of any democratic country.
“There are adequate protections against unreasonable requests already in place and any trained information manager should know about them. If this is truly the opinion of the premier towards the people’s right to open and transparent government that was voted unanimously by the LA in 2007, then that is very disappointing and it puts the recent considerations of the EY [consultant’s report] suggestions in a totally new and frightening light.”
During proceedings in the LA’s Finance Committee Thursday, North Side MLA Ezzard Miller asked for an update on amendments to the FOI Law which were supposed to have been made sometime in 2010, and whether anything could be done to speed up responses to open records requests.
“The average civil servant, because the law and regulations says that they have to respond [to an open records request] within 30 days, you don’t normally get a reply until 29.5 days. And then they ask for an extension,” Mr. Miller said. “My concern is that there seems to be a growing resistance to responses in FOI and I don’t know what we can do about it.”
Premier Alden McLaughlin, who via his supervision of the Cabinet Secretary’s office has responsibility for FOI and data protection coordination, responded that in his view, the FOI system was being abused, after which he made his “Mickey Mouse” comments detailed above.
This response from the premier prompted Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush to shout from the benches across the floor: “What a difference a day makes!”
Mr. Bush had expressed many of the same concerns in 2010 as then-premier, stating that the FOI process was simply too much for “this little 2×4 country” and that people were using the law, which allows anyone in the world to request public information from government, in attempts to be “slanderous, vindictive and dirty.”
Freedom of Information laws
In the Caribbean, FOI laws have largely struggled through years of delay, political resistance and government bureaucracy.
However, during a first-of-its-kind FOI conference in Kingston in 2013, Laura Neuman of the Atlanta, Georgia-based Carter Center – a nonprofit public policy development initiative – said the Caribbean region had “come a long way” since the start of the 21st century on open records laws. Ms. Neuman considered the Cayman Islands’ open records regime to be one of the Caribbean’s “greatest success stories.”
In the first four years of FOI in Cayman, from January 2009 to January 2013, more than 3,000 requests for information were made for government records. By way of comparison, Belize has had an FOI law since 1994, but only a small number of open records requests have been made over the past two decades.
In the Bahamas, efforts to pass an open records law flopped, while in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Kitts proposed laws have been drafted but not yet considered by the various governing bodies.