“We now have an open government,” said Deputy Governor Franz Manderson back in September 2013, declaring that the Cayman Islands’ Freedom of Information Law was a success.
In retrospect, it appears that some of Cayman’s civil servants did not receive the deputy governor’s message.
Here’s a gentle reminder: In the Cayman Islands, FOI is the law of the land.
The FOI Law happens to be, in our opinion, a decent piece of legislation.
We also believe that Acting Information Commissioner Jan Liebaers has discharged his duties admirably during his time in office.
That being said, regardless of how well a law is worded or how diligent a government overseer is, at the ground level – that is, where the public sector interacts with the private citizenry – the true test of a transparency regime is whether the applicant receives the public records he requested. Recalcitrant bureaucrats, as they say, “have ways” of thwarting the process.
In other words, a good FOI Law is a step toward good, accountable governance, but is no substitute for it.
We’ll highlight two egregious instances (that the Compass reported on last week) where civil servants attempted to deny information that is the rightful property of the people.
The first involved a request for retrieval of emails from the Department of Children and Family Services, which, in turn, enlisted the help of the Computer Services Department. First, officials attempted to charge the applicant $1,620 for 15 hours of work, then winnowed it down to $540 for five hours – or a rate of $108 per hour.
Finding that the hourly wage for a computer services administrator would actually run around $28-$29, Mr. Liebaers said, “No explanation is provided as to why $108 is being charged per hour or how that figure was arrived at.”
Although it is frustrating to see the government attempt to grossly overcharge a member of the public for what, to us, appears to be a routine request, the second example is far more concerning because it involved systemic failures at the ministerial level.
In brief, in May 2014 a person requested records related to local pensions investment laws, which are held by the Ministry of Employment, led by Minister Tara Rivers and Chief Officer Christen Suckoo. What followed was a textbook exercise in officials’ delay tactics, to the extent that two years later, some of the relevant documents still have not been released.
What Mr. Liebaers found most concerning, a view we share, is that “a key staff member refused to cooperate with [the manager] to make sure the ministry met its legal obligation.”
The ministry’s conduct was so abysmal that Mr. Liebaers said he intends to file a formal report with Deputy Governor Franz Manderson about the issue.
The deputy governor is not a bad place to start, but if we were filing the complaint, we would include in that correspondence the police and public prosecutors. The subject title of our email might read: “Section 55, Freedom of Information Law.”
That section states: “(1) A person commits an offence, if in relation to a record to which a right of access is conferred under this Law, he – (a) alters or defaces; (b) blocks or erases; (c) destroys; or (d) conceals, the record with the intention of preventing its disclosure. (2) A person who commits an offence under subsection 91) is liable on summary conviction to a fine of one hundred thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a term of six months or to both such fine and imprisonment.”
The applicant for the pensions records said, “[The ministry’s position] is very disrespectful to all employees in the islands.”
That’s true. But when the Cayman government actively tries to keep public records out of public sight, it’s disrespectful to every single person in the Cayman Islands.