Transparency campaign prompts fear of island tensions

Campaigners have asked councillors on St Helena whether they support transparency in government. There are links to councillors’ full replies at the end of this story, and to a response from the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign.

Open government could lead to tension, grudges and feuds on St Helena, according to island councillors.

Only one of the 11 councillors has fully backed a call for more transparency in government. Some said the island already had open government, despite strong arguments to the contrary.

Others said they fully supported transparency – except when it came to letting the public know about decisions being made on their behalf by the Executive Council.

They responded to questions from the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign by voicing concerns about sensitivities on a small island.

Stedson Francis said: “Whilst I support openness and transparency…I wouldn’t want to see family and friends split over issues, as was the case back in the Seventies.”

Rodney Buckley said; “The simplest of issues can split family harmony for decades. Many island families still hold grudges against each other that took place before even I was born.

“Whilst I am strongly in support of open government, I am content that the current council procedures provide for the good governance of law and order on behalf of the people of St Helena.”

Tara Thomas stood down as a councillor on 31 August 2012, but shared her insight. She said: “I am pro-transparency but providing some documentation in advance of a decision can create undue anxiety in the community.”

Officials needed to be free to float ideas in meetings without fear of them being seized on as firm policy, she said.

Anthony Green – currently on government business overseas – said he had initiated a council debate on openness, but needed to understand all the issues before deciding on his position.

Two councillors would be happy to see discussions on the possibility of a freedom-of-information law, to give island residents the same right to facts as people in fully-democratic countries. Two others appeared cautiously supportive: one voiced concern about cost, and another said it could be a move for the future.

Some councillors conceded limited knowledge of the issues.

Only two councillors chose not to respond to the simple questionnaire from the St Helena Freedom of Information (FoI) Campaign. They did not acknowledge the letter, despite a polite reminder.

It explained why letting the public see information that guided councillors was a vital part of democracy elsewhere – and a legal requirement in the UK. It also said that without access to agendas, minutes and reports, the media could not scrutinise government properly.

UK law allows councils to meet in private when discussing personal or commercially sensitive information. Planning committees meet in public and full details of all planning applications are published on the internet in advance.

  • Campaigners withdraw their request for a response from Councillor Bernice Olsson because of a conflict of interest:  she is married to one of the campaign members.

SEE ALSO:
Councillors’ responses to open government questions
Response to councillors on open government for St Helena

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