No details on 31 charity application objections

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  • Preserve Marriage Demonstration. (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

    Preserve Marriage Demonstration. (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

More than 30 objections were made about Preserve Marriage’s application to become a charity, but the island’s charity commissioners won’t release the details.

The statutory board which decides on applications for charitable status denied a public access to information request from The Royal Gazette for the content of the objections.

The refusal was upheld by Richard Ambrosio, the chairman of the Charity Commissioners for Bermuda, and has since been appealed by this newspaper to the information commissioner.

Preserve Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage and civil unions, registered as a company in December last year and applied for charitable status soon after.

It was successful and charity #983 was allowed to register for an initial one-year period in early April.

This newspaper made a Pati request a few days later to the charity commissioners for the content of any objections received in relation to the application and the minutes of any meetings held by the commissioners in which the application was discussed and decided upon.

We asked for the same information regarding OUTBermuda, an organisation which promotes equality for the island’s LGBT community, and which had also applied for charitable status.

The board’s information officer responded on May 19 by providing heavily redacted minutes from the commissioners’ meetings on March 8 and 22 and April 5 and 19.

The records did not reveal the number of objections and shed little light on how the commissioners came to their decision to grant charitable status to both organisations, so this newspaper applied to Mr Ambrosio for a review.

The chairman shared his decision on July 18, concluding that providing the content of the objections would have “imposed a substantial and unreasonable interference” with the work of Registry-General staff.

Mr Ambrosio said civil servants would have either had to contact each objector to give notice of disclosure or gone through each objection and removed identifying material before releasing the information.

He said Registry-General staff told him either scenario would disrupt their work and he “had no reason to depart from the assessment of frontline public servants in this regard”.

He added: “My experience in working with the Registry-General has taught me that this is an under-resourced Department of Government which tries valiantly to adhere to the requirements imposed on it.”

Mr Ambrosio said he did not believe the public interest was met in disclosing those records, but was prepared to share the number of objections.

“The provision of this aggregate data would, to my mind, protect the confidence of the individuals who submitted objections, while meeting the public interest in gauging community interest pertaining to two charitable organisations linked in the public’s mind to an issue of national importance,” he said.

Despite his July 18 ruling, information on the number of objections was not provided to this newspaper until November 30, when Mr Ambrosio apologised for the delay and revealed there were 31 in relation to Preserve Marriage and none for OUTBermuda.

In Mr Ambrosio’s ruling, he dealt with this newspaper’s complaint that the minutes of the meetings were heavily redacted and concluded that the “starting presumption” should be that “all minutes of the charity commissioners should be disclosed under Pati”.

However, he noted: “The minutes rarely set out in detail any discussions underpinning an approval.”

A set of unredacted minutes for each of the four meetings was provided to this newspaper on November 7, after we twice asked for them again.

The minutes of the board’s March 8 meeting reveal that “the commissioners query the public benefit” of Preserve Marriage.

The April 5 minutes record a “robust discussion” among the commissioners about whether the group had political purposes or “simply pursued political activities in aid of charitable purposes”, as a source previously revealed to this newspaper.

“Ultimately, the commissioners took the view that the organisation meets all the statutory requirements for registration,” the minutes record, adding that not all seven members were present,

but the recommendation for approval was circulated via e-mail to all and the “commissioners agreed to this recommendation”.

The April 19 minutes state: “When the decision was so circulated, certain commissioners did raise whether or not the matter should be deferred for a budget and business plan to be produced.

“In the end, the commissioners decided against that and agreed to the recommendation for approval.”

Preserve Marriage did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment yesterday.

The charity paid for a full-page advert in The Royal Gazette on Wednesday which accused the Human Rights Commission of being “at odds with the European Court of Human Rights” for supporting same-sex marriage.

It also — in a repeat of an ad which appeared on November 30 — quoted remarks made in Parliament by Mark Pettingill, the former Attorney-General who is now representing a same-sex couple in their ongoing legal bid to wed here.

Mr Pettingill said: “This just reflects well-funded discrimination at its best. I think it’s now become a matter I will consider raising with the courts.”

HRC chairwoman Tawana Tannock did not respond to an e-mail by press time.

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Published Dec 16, 2016 at 8:00 am (Updated Dec 16, 2016 at 6:31 am)

No details on 31 charity application objections

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