Privacy, public good go head to head
This week The Gleaner ran into a roadblock when it requested the contract details for the tax and police commissioners, sparking a firestorm over whether the reasons of the Office of the Services Commissions for the blockade are warranted under a country which claims democracy as its abiding philosophy.
Published February 28, 2021
Transparency advocates surprised at State’s refusal to disclose tax, police commissioners’ contracts
A SUNDAY Gleaner request for the employment contracts of the police and tax commissioners has been denied, shocking some civil society advocates who are insisting that the holders of the two key public positions cannot benefit from oft-used privacy shield.
The request was among four made under the Access to Information (ATI) Act on February 11 to the Office of the Services Commissions (OSC), which responded 13 days later, advising that the applications were refused.
“This office is restrained from providing the information you requested,” read the letter, citing Section 22 (1) of the ATI Act, which allows an authority to block access to an official document if it involves “unreasonable disclosure” of a person’s private affairs.
In addition to the contracts for the tax commissioner, Ainsley Powell, and the police commissioner, Major General Antony Anderson, the compensation package for senior cops from the rank of assistant commissioner upwards, and for permanent secretaries, were also sought.
ENFORCES TAX LAWS
Anderson has operational responsibility for the Jamaica Constabulary Force while Powell has responsibility for the direction and management of Tax Administration Jamaica, the entity that enforces tax laws and collects government revenue.
The disclosure issue has emerged as Anderson’s current three-year contract approaches its expiration, having been in effect since March 19, 2018. Powell was appointed on October 1, 2014.
The denial has stunned Howard Mitchell and Professor Trevor Munroe, two leading voices on transparency and anti-corruption issues in Jamaica.
The Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions and the Jamaica Civil Service Association (JCSA) were similarly puzzled by the decision of the OSC, which is the administrator of the Public Service Commission and the Police Service Commission – the two constitutional bodies which make recommendations to the governor general for appointments.
However, Owen Ellington, who served as commissioner of police from 2010 to 2014, believes the OSC made the right call.
“They would have considered it and denied it for good reason … Privacy is good reason,” he told The Sunday Gleaner. “I can’t disagree with them. They may have serious privacy issues for which they have taken the decision not to disclose details of a contract, and that’s something I think the media should develop a capacity for respecting. You just can’t get everything you ask for.”
MORE ORDERLY SOCIETY
According to Ellington, “enough” is known publicly about the commissioner and, although the media may be interested in the contract details, “I don’t know that the public is interested in it. The public is interested in outcomes, which is a safer, more orderly society.”
That is not sufficient grounds, however, for Mitchell, a lawyer, chairman of the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal, and past president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica.
“On what basis would the people of a country not have a right to know how much they pay the commissioner of police or how much they pay the person who collects their taxes?” asked Mitchell.
He noted that there may be some sensitive positions in government, such as the head of the
Major Organised Crime and AntiCorruption Agency or the Military Intelligence Unit of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), where the precise salaries could be restricted.
But Mitchell said that, for transparency reasons, it is critical that the functions as outlined in the contracts for Anderson and Powell be disclosed “for which they can be held accountable”.
“Why would the salary of a police commissioner be private? It’s not private anywhere else in the world, in any other established democracy. I’m struggling,” he said.
The salary scales for civil servants are generally public and can be accessed from the website of the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service.
However, there are some officials who are hired on fixed-term contracts with levels of compensation which may not fall within the established bands and whose contracts may include specific deliverables.
O’Neil Grant, president of the JCSA, of which Powell is a member, said, owing to past scandals regarding overpayments of some public officials and the required disclosure of senior staff compensation in annual reports of public bodies, the OSC’s reason cannot just be because of privacy.
“One could make the case quite easily that because it involves the expenditure of public funds, then the prohibition as it relates to secrecy may not necessarily be something that can be properly justified,” Grant argued.
The union leader said: “No public officer can say that they have an inherent right for their salaries to be secret.”
In 2009, then Prime Minister Bruce Golding told the country that Derick Latibeaudiere was fired from his post as Bank of Jamaica governor based on the exorbitant provisions in his contract.
Golding said then that Latibeaudiere was being paid $38 million a year – more than the chairman of the US Federal Reserve.
For Helene Davis-Whyte, the president of the confederation of trade unions, while salaries may be of interest to the public, the introduction of contracts to the public service as part of a performance-measuring tool gives greater imperative for disclosure.
“His (Anderson) contract would not be subject to the same kind of scrutiny as would the contract of anybody who is employed using the direct employment route,” she said, explaining contracting as a means of employment is a departure from the general approach to hiring persons to posts approved by Parliament.
“It should be something available for scrutiny,” she insisted. “If you’re taking a job in the public sector, you should recognise that this is something you’re going to have to put up with.”
Munroe, the principal director of the National Integrity Action, has pointed to the constitutional right of Jamaicans to seek and receive information, which may only be abrogated, abridged or infringed “to the extent as may be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.
It is why he said “there would need to be an especially compelling reason for withholding or keeping secret the contract or salary of public officers paid from the public purse, whether the commissioner of police or any other public officer”.
“Subject, therefore, to compelling reasons for denial, the public authorities holding these contracts should disclose them to the public,” argued the head of the local chapter of Transparency International.
Even as National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang has expressed confidence in Anderson and a wish for him to continue, there have been public concerns about his performance, starkly raised in the spate of murders and shootings that have taken place so far this year.
There has been a six per cent increase in murders so far this year, compared with the similar period for 2020.
The minister does not have a say in whether the Gordon Shirley-led Police Service Commission will extend Anderson’s contract. However, a senior government official said no “wise” commission would ignore the public statements of the political administration.
A request for comment from the Police Officers’ Association, which represents JCF members from the rank of superintendent to deputy commissioner, was not returned up to press time.