How much has the Cayman Islands government spent on the construction of the new John Gray High School gym?
That’s a piece of information the Ministry of Education, and apparently Minister of Education Tara Rivers, do not want the people of Cayman to know – at least not until well after the May 24 elections.
In mid-February, government officials – including Minister Rivers, Ministry of Education Chief Officer Christen Suckoo and George Town MLA Joey Hew – were eager to “show off” the new gymnasium.
They were happy to pose for a nice “photo op,” to note that the new gym would be ready in time for May final exams, and to promise that the construction project would come in under budget.
As to what exactly that budget is, however, they remain less than forthcoming. Senior project manager Jonathan Matthews described the costs as “confidential,” while Chief Officer Suckoo said, “Let’s not belabor this, OK?”
No one should ever be “OK” with government attempting to deflect, obscure or shield information about how public officials are spending public money.
On April 4, one of our journalists submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Law, seeking records related to the “cost of construction of the new gym at John Gray High School.”
We were pleased to receive, on April 12, a fairly prompt response from Ministry of Education Manager Janet Chisholm. We were less pleased to read the contents of that response:
“The new gym at John Gray High School is still in the construction phase and the minister has given the undertaking to disclose the full cost once the project is completed. Therefore, access to the records will be granted on the 30-Jun-2017. Releasing this record in the public domain will not benefit the public and might create misperception since the project is still in the construction phase.”
(June 30? What about the new gym being ready by May exams?)
We immediately requested an internal review of that response from Chief Officer Suckoo, which we presume is ongoing. If he persists in not releasing the costs, we almost certainly will lodge an appeal with the Information Commissioner’s Office. (In light of Premier Alden McLaughlin’s, Chief Justice Anthony Smellie’s and Governor Helen Kilpatrick’s quashing of the “Ritch Report” on immigration, we await to see how effective the information commissioner can be.)
There are two fundamental flaws in the ministry’s argument to “defer.” First, the ministry asserts that Minister Rivers has vowed to disclose the costs on June 30.
Between this date and that, the May 24 elections will occur. There is no certainty that Minister Rivers will be a member of the Legislative Assembly on June 30 – or if she is, that she will remain Minister of Education. Even if her intention is true, it cannot bind her successor.
Second, the ministry attempts to strangle the definition of what most people would think of as the “public interest.” It is certainly of importance that Caymanian voters have all the facts about the performance of Minister Rivers and the Progressives government before their ballots are cast on May 24. High atop that list of “must-know” information is how much officials have spent on major capital projects, such as the gym. Remember the runaway costs of the Clifton Hunter High School?
As for the ministry’s statement that the public may be confused by being given the costs of a project before the project is complete, we think it is more likely that the ministry itself is confused – about its obligation to share timely information with the public it serves.
The inclusion of two key words will suffice in order to clear up any possible “misperception” in that area, i.e.: “The government has spent XX million dollars on construction of the new John Gray gym … so far.”