Lawmakers resign in protest from ombudsman committee

Ezzard Miller, Alva Suckoo, Bernie Bush and Eugene Ebanks

Four Cayman Islands MLAs resigned Wednesday from the legislative committee that oversees the Complaints Commissioner’s Office in protest of the government’s plan to combine that office with other government watchdog entities.

North Side independent MLA Ezzard Miller confirmed he had sent his resignation to the Speaker of the House on Wednesday. Speaker Juliana O’Connor-Connolly confirmed that three other members from the opposition benches – West Bay MLAs Bernie Bush and Capt. Eugene Ebanks, and Bodden Town MLA Alva Suckoo – had also submitted resignation letters.

“I do not support the merger that’s taking place,” Mr. Miller said. “I believe the role, function and achievements of the complaints commissioner are going to be diminished. My fears are that they will not be allowed to function as independently as they have been doing.”

The Complaints Commissioner’s Office, which was legally formed in 2005, operates as a government ombudsman for non-police related public complaints.

The government has proposed in recent years, and Cabinet has accepted, a plan that would combine the complaints commissioner function with the offices of the information commissioner and a yet-to-be-formed police complaints entity. The three entities would be controlled by a “super ombudsman” who has not yet been named.

The merger was due to occur at the end of this year.

Mr. Miller said no members of his legislative committee were consulted on the proposed merger of the independent offices by the civil service group now leading the effort to effect the amalgamation.

“I am not aware of how this thing is going to be done in relation to the constitutional positions, the legislative positions … whether there’s going to be a legislative oversight committee of the super ombudsman,” Mr. Miller said. “I can tell you that I informed the committee at its last meeting that, in protest to the merger and the undefined role that the legislative committee will have in the future, I was going to resign as chairman.”

The resignations will leave the committee unable to function for lack of a quorum for the time being. Although Mr. Miller noted that he was uncertain whether that committee would have any further work to do, given the pending amalgamation of the complaints commissioner’s office.

The last time the complaints commissioner’s office had a permanent head was nearly two years ago. Commissioner Nicola Williams left her post for an ombudsman’s position with the U.K. armed forces in early 2015.

The Information Commissioner’s Office, which handles appeals and public information relating to Freedom of Information requests to government, has not had permanent leadership since former Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert retired from the civil service in December 2013.

Projected savings from the merger of the independent offices 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.

The government’s level of support for the two existing independent offices has come into question numerous times since the departure of Ms. Williams and Ms. Dilbert.

Both women said the proposed merger would seriously affect the ability of those offices to operate independently of central government.

In addition to Mr. Miller, independent MLA Arden McLean has publicly opposed the idea.

Mr. McLean suggested last year that the merger of the two offices might even be considered unconstitutional.