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Accountability circus

Every now and then some kind of governance matter comes up that is so extraordinary that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Perhaps both? The most recent example comes from the Bermuda Tourism Authority’s response to a disclosure decision made by the Information Commissioner. According to The Royal Gazette’s June 5 report, the BTA has once again refused to disclose information to the public.

Apparently, this is the second or third time that the BTA has delayed/refused a Pati request. This time around, it is refusing to disclose minutes from board meetings. And the reason why? Because complying with the Pati request would “cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with, or disruption of, the other work of the BTA”.

The report further quotes the BTA’s information officer with the following:

“Based on the BTA’s prior experience, complying with any request for the board meeting minutes of the BTA would be administratively burdensome; in particular, the timing and disruption involved for senior members of the BTA in order to review, redact and respond to correspondence received from The Royal Gazette.”

To put it bluntly, these statements are absurd. Bermuda is an international business centre, and insurance is our lifeblood. On an annual basis, insurance companies have to make operational disclosures to a third party (eg, their reinsurer). With some audits, every e-mail, report, spreadsheet, contract, revision, etc, for each business deal has to be disclosed. It is simply a matter of saving the electronic files to a specified location where they can be read or reviewed by a third party.

Why is this so common and straightforward for international business but so “administratively burdensome” for the BTA? This isn’t 1994, when a business would be required to pull paper files, make photocopies and then mail or fax them to an auditor. It’s 2024, and 99.9 per cent of all BTA records should be electronic. If the “review and redact” process is so onerous, then one really has to ask why does the BTA have so much information to keep from the public eye?

As if the BTA’s initial comments quoted in the Gazette weren’t farcical enough, what followed was even more eye-watering:

“Further, and in any event, the BTA does not understand how this request could be in the genuine public’s interest, given that the relevant and material information regarding the BTA’s operations and finances is publicly disclosed in the BTA’s quarterly reports, published on its website.”

“Additionally, the costs involved and the implications on the public purse as a result of legal advice to respond to Pati requests of this nature could potentially be substantial.”

Why is it viable for everyone other than the BTA to disclose such information?

Let us not forget, it’s not as though the BTA has been forthcoming in sharing information that should have been far easier to collect, redact and disclose. And, if the BTA has actually hired a law firm to slow, or stop, disclosure of information to the public, doesn’t its public-cost argument go out the window?

This cuts to the very heart of public access to information. Any ministry, quango or government authority could make the same argument as the BTA. I’m sure there are more, but here are just two very basic reasons why this kind of excuse should be thrown out the window:

1, The public have directly and indirectly funded the BTA to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. We should not only have insight as to what decisions the BTA has made, but more importantly, why such decisions have been made. That’s why the disclosure of meeting minutes is so critical

2, The costs and implications related to any government ministry, quango or authority operating without any fear of public scrutiny has been proven already to be far too high for Bermuda. That is why Pati was introduced in the first place

The saddest thing about the BTA’s absurd response is that we pretty much asked for it. The Government has found multiple ways to avoid transparency. For example, it has:

• Simply refused to respond to inquiries from the media and the general public

• Managed “commercially sensitive” contractual arrangements through the Office of the Attorney General

• Used non-disclosure agreements to hide private settlement agreements

• Claimed that the cyberattack has slowed or completely prevented disclosure of records

• Hired law firms to fight the Information Commissioner’s decisions

Yet, after multiple examples of transparency being treated like a bad joke, the public soon forget about the controversy. Or worse, the public buy into the idea that the person or organisation requesting information is just trying to cause trouble.

Well, of course all these Pati requests come from racists and troublemakers, right? Wink, wink.

What a sorry state of affairs. The public have been incredibly willing to turn a blind eye to, or soon forget about, the Government’s repeated attempts to keep us unaware and ignorant of how our tax dollars get spent. Given that we have repeatedly failed to hold the Government accountable, is it any wonder that the BTA sees nothing wrong with effectively telling the public that the meeting minutes are none of our business?

One final thought: It continually fascinates me that the Progressive Labour Party introduced the Pati concept in 2005, but failed to implement it before losing the government in 2012. During the time spent as the Opposition, it championed the need for transparency and promised a new era of accountability. But since 2017, the Government has done everything it can to reduce transparency and avoid accountability.

Bryant Trew can be contacted via e-mail at bryanttrew@mac.com

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Published June 10, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated June 09, 2024 at 3:25 pm)

Accountability circus

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