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Step up and start the Pati brigade

Inquiring minds want to know, Mr Editor, what it is they can do in the wake of the most recent reports of the Auditor-General. Of course, they want action and many have lost confidence that anything meaningful will happen.

Well, I have an idea: step up and help to start the Pati brigade.

Pati: the Public Access To Information Act, which, from the start, has been widely touted, and correctly, as an additional means by which the Government can be held to account — and in an effective, transparent way.

This is an opportune time to put the legislation to good use — and here's how: taxpayers can start by asking questions of the relevant government departments by way of requests for information under the Act and choose, by way of example, any of those scandalous matters that have been the subject of Auditor-General reports, such as:

• Construction of the commercial courts and renovation of the Ministry of Finance headquarters

• Central Laboratory Building project

• Duplication and overpayments at the Department of Airport Operations

• Consultancy contracts

• Heritage Wharf at Dockyard

• TCD Emissions Centre

• The Port Royal Golf Course renovation project

I will not say the list is endless, heaven forbid, please, but you get the picture. You may even have some pet peeves of your own, whether they be fiscal or otherwise. You can also go farther back if you wish or stick with the present and add to the list:

• The Acute Care Wing

• Bermuda Tourism Authority

• America's Cup

• The proposed new airport project

There is no magic formula on how the requests should be framed. You will be asking for any and all records that pertain to a particular project, including all correspondence related thereto, which includes all e-mails, and any other relevant documentation on file, whether contracts, reports or memorandums of understanding.

If you need guidance, you can always turn to the Office of the Information Commissioner. There is a website you can check out for yourself in advance (www.ico.bm) or e-mail at info@ico.bm or drop by their office on the corner of Parliament and Reid streets in Hamilton. Put them to work for you. That's why they're there.

However, the office will not be able to take up your request for you at this stage. The Information Commissioner cannot assist because she serves as the person of first appeal should your request be denied or not fully answered.

In the event of a refusal, the Act provides for this appeal and her office can take the issue up from there — and what is interesting here is that the office has some real teeth under the Act that gives the Information Commissioner very broad and sweeping investigatory powers to ferret out and review relevant documentation.

There are criminal sanctions, too, for anyone who alters or destroys any records and for failing to comply generally with the requirements of the Act, which, presumably, would include attempts at obstruction.

The beauty is that you get to ask the questions you wish your MPs would ask and you get the answers you wish they would give.

Consider it, if you will, the do-it-yourself kit of good governance — and take advantage.

Second, the information that you obtain is public information for public dissemination and for public consumption. It can be shared by whatever means you prefer: social media, Facebook or a webpage, and/or shared with your favourite news reporter, and/or with your MP.

Public exposure is how Pati becomes effective. The threat of public exposure also serves as a deterrent: authorities will be more inclined to be careful about how and what they put in the wash if they know it will come out in the rinse.

It can also be effective when there is a refusal to answer questions, Mr Editor. You will recall, for instance, when the Government refused to answer sets of parliamentary questions, using Pati as a shield for responding on the floor of the House.

The first occasion was over Bermuda Tourism Authority salaries and compensation packages, ie bonuses, awarded to staff. Opposition members were told to try Pati instead.

The second was when another Cabinet minister compounded an apparent breach of the Act when he sought to expose that an Opposition MP had submitted a Pati request about the same matter that he was pursuing in the House. And on this, by the way, we still await the results of investigation by the Information Commissioner and what sanctions will follow.

The pity, too, was that the refusals came from a Government that promised greater transparency and accountability in its election campaign — and rarely is there ever a second chance to make a good first impression.

So pencils up, people, keyboards down, and start making those requests. Such industry and interest sends a message, too, Mr Editor.

PS: If you are in any doubt, I am serious. There is nothing frivolous or vexatious about asking questions in need of answers.

Controversial project: the development of Port Royal Golf Course, seen here under renovation in 2008

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Published December 11, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated December 11, 2015 at 12:33 am)

Step up and start the Pati brigade

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