EDITORIAL – Building trust in public boards

The Central Planning Authority is wise to publicly disclose board members’ and employees’ business, property, financial and other relevant interests, even in advance of a legal requirement to do so. We urge others of Cayman’s public boards to follow their lead.

We can think of no good reason to wait for Cabinet to get around to formally triggering the requirement, included in the Standards in Public Life Law that first was approved by the Legislative Assembly in 2014, later amended and still – inexplicably – awaiting enactment. With few exceptions, the public’s business should be conducted in public view.

As it was written and approved, the law requires elected politicians, senior government workers and government-appointed board members to publicly disclose their personal interests. It is a standard adopted by many democratic governments to help identify potential conflicts of interests and build trust in public bodies.

As this editorial board has noted, our vast network of boards, commissions and statutory authorities are charged with carrying out important public business – deciding issues as far-reaching as immigration, health, development, business licensing and other areas of regulation or government enterprise. With this considerable power comes a responsibility to uphold the highest standards of transparency and professionalism.

The Central Planning Authority, in particular, wields considerable power and influence. Appropriately, it has taken meaningful steps toward transparency in recent years, but as an Auditor General’s report released early this year also noted, the work is far from over.

Auditors have recommended that the CPA make its voting process more transparent and provide stronger evidence that outside technical advice is being taken into account. Already, the CPA has taken the important step of making portions of its meetings open to the pubic, but its members continue to deliberate and vote behind closed doors.

As Public Accounts Committee Chairman Ezzard Miller said at a meeting of his committee on Wednesday, “It’s the actual act of voting that the public needs to know if we’re going to demonstrate that acts of corruption aren’t occurring and people aren’t being influenced.”

Adopting this standard of transparency would mark an important shift for the CPA and other public boards.

In its January report, the Auditor General also recommended that the authority diversify its membership to avoid the appearance of bias and vulnerability to corruption. Most members of the 13-member board, which has long been chaired by building supply retailer and construction company owner A.L. Thompson, have interests in real estate, development, construction and related enterprises.

On one hand, this helps ensure that board members are well familiar with the issues that come before them. On the other hand, as the report noted, it requires extra vigilance against the temptation to allow personal interests to influence board decisions.

Personal disclosures help protect against any member leveraging his or her position for private gain. They also protect board members from the appearance of impropriety, dispelling rumours and building trust in their work and public institutions in general.

As the Compass reports today, it is unclear when, or if, our legislators plan to enact the Standards in Public Life Law. That does not prevent the CPA, or any public board, from adopting policies and procedures that make their workings more transparent and invite public participation in their important public work.

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