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Ministry fails to respond to Pati requests

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Right to Know: information commissioner Gitanjali Gutierrez

The information commissioner has ruled that the Ministry of Education failed twice to comply with public access to information legislation when it was asked to release records by The Royal Gazette about a money-raising scheme for public school buildings.

Gitanjali Gutierrez was asked by this newspaper to review the ministry’s actions in relation to a Pati request submitted in February this year for records relating to the Adopt-a-School initiative launched under former education minister Dame Jennifer Smith.

This week, Ms Gutierrez issued a decision notice which stated that the ministry failed to make two decisions within the statutory timeframe set out in the Public Access to Information Act.

The first failure was not providing a decision regarding our Pati request within the six weeks set out in the Act. This newspaper subsequently asked the head of the authority, permanent secretary Valerie Robinson-James, to conduct an internal review.

The second failure of the ministry was not providing a decision regarding the internal review within the six weeks set out in the Act.

This newspaper finally received a decision from Ms Robinson-James on September 8 this year, during the course of the commissioner’s investigation and seven months after submitting our Pati request.

Ms Robinson-James said an internal review had been conducted and apologised for not issuing a decision to convey the outcome.

She said her internal review concluded that the ministry’s information officer had “not completed a decision” regarding the Pati request but that “roughly two half work days had been spent searching through historical (2010 to 2012) hard file folders for letters and internal memoranda relating to the ‘Adopt-a-School scheme’.”

She added: “An electronic search of the topic was made on the ministry’s website and in its central database of soft files. Limited information was found. The internal review also discovered that the ministry’s Pati information officer had carried out internet searches on various other websites to supplement the limited information found in the ministry files.”

The Adopt-a-School scheme was announced by Dame Jennifer in November 2010 as a way to raise money for repair work on ailing school buildings.

In June 2011, the minister announced that $180,000 had been raised to improve more than a dozen schools. Those reported to have adopted schools and donated money included Ewart Brown, the former Premier, former Cabinet minister David Burch, Progressive Labour Party politicians Zane DeSilva and David Burt, the Green family, Greymane Contracting and Jim Kerwin, of Rock Media.

Our Pati request was submitted on February 11 this year, soon after the ministry released its school reorganisation report to the public.

That document revealed a host of health and safety failings across Bermuda’s public primary schools, including exposed live electrical wires, rodents climbing into classrooms, discarded condoms, and a play structure described as “an accident waiting to happen”.

We asked the ministry to “share all information held on the Ministry of Education’s Adopt-a-School scheme” including a “list of all the schools that were adopted, the names of their adopters, the amounts of money given to the schools by the adopters and detailed information on how that money was spent”.

We added: “Please include information on how long [length of time] each adoption lasted and which schools are currently adopted.”

The records released by the permanent secretary on September 8 comprised media reports and press releases already publicly available and five pages of internal documents, none of which reveal how the money raised was spent or whether the scheme is still in existence.

Ms Gutierrez said she need take no further action in respect of the ministry’s failures, because the permanent secretary had eventually issued a decision, but she noted that this newspaper could ask her to review the permanent secretary’s decision if it was unsatisfactory, which we will do.

• Click on the PDF links under “Related Media” for more information