Separate employees with “specialist” skills will staff the proposed Cayman Islands ombudsman office, which is set to encompass the activities of public complaints, police complaints and the information commissioner.
The merger was expected to take effect by the end of the year, according to lawmakers, although government planners indicated that they were still in the “fact finding” stage of the merger process.
In an announcement last week, the deputy governor’s office indicated that while “corporate services” for the office would be merged – administrative staff, supplies and the like – staffing in each area would be made up of “specialist” employees.
“As such, investigators and analysts in each area will require different training and skill sets,” according to a statement released Thursday by the team of civil servants handling the merger project. The team is led by Peter Gough, the special assistant to Deputy Governor Franz Manderson.
Government officials have said no one currently employed by the Information Commissioner’s Office or the Complaints Commissioner’s Office would lose their job. Ten people now work in those two agencies.
In addition to the information commissioner, who decides on appeals of open records requests, and the complaints commissioner, who deals with public complaints against government bodies that do not involve law enforcement, it is anticipated a police complaints function and a data protection function will be added at some stage.
“The outcome of this approach will be that the new office offers a one-stop shop where citizens and visitors will be able to lodge a range of complaints at a single independent office,” the deputy governor’s office statement noted. “We believe that this is an important development, as among other benefits, it will avoid persons who wish to make a complaint against the police having to visit a police station.”
The data protection aspect of the office – aimed at protection of individual privacy with regard to personal information – has not been decided. Lawmakers are expected to consider a bill in the fall that would give the information commissioner data protection responsibilities. The government has unsuccessfully tried twice in the past five years to approve data protection legislation.
In addition to the Data Protection Bill, government expects a separate Ombudsman Bill will have to be brought to the Legislative Assembly, along with some required changes to the local Police Law, Freedom of Information Law and the Complaints Commissioner Law.
Projected savings from the merger stated in a government review of the proposal released earlier this year were expected to come mainly from not staffing separate offices. For instance, staffing a separate police complaints commission was anticipated to cost more than $600,000 a year, according to estimates in the report. The government has never spent that amount because the police complaints body was never formed.
Savings on operating costs for the offices of complaints and information commissioners was anticipated at $205,000, compared to what existed with a separate commissioner leading both agencies. Neither office has had permanent leadership for more than a year while government managers awaited the outcome of merger talks.
Acting Police Commissioner Anthony Ennis gave his support to the merger, stating that the police public complaints commission would be “accountable only to parliament.”
“The police believe this project will assure the public of objective, unbiased investigation of complaints,” Mr. Ennis said, adding that the police would continue to handle internal department complaints against staff. Only complaints from outside of the police service would be handled by the commission, he said.
The government’s level of support for the two existing independent offices has come into question numerous times since the departure of former Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams in early 2015. Retired Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert, who left that office in December 2013, also raised serious questions about the proposed merger. No one has served on a permanent basis since either commissioner left their respective post.
Independent MLAs Arden McLean and Ezzard Miller have publicly opposed the idea.
Mr. McLean alleged last year that the merger of the two offices might even be considered unconstitutional.
“I will never, ever support [this],” Mr. McLean said.
“If we amalgamate a number of these bodies, then we compromise that independence by having one person [as] the head of them all.”