Published On: Tue, Jun 28th, 2022

PFP: Ombudsman’s report is the final straw in a long list of poor governance

~ Calls on Minister Doran to resign; requests Urgent Public Meeting ~

PHILIPSBURG – Following Monday’s publication of the Ombudsman’s report on the tendering and awarding process of the garbage collection contracts 2021-2026, outraged Party for Progress (PFP) Members of Parliament (MPs) Melissa Gumbs and Raeyhon Peterson have called on Minister of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure (VROMI) Egbert J. Doran to immediately resign because of his demonstrated history of irresponsible governance and questionable decisions.

The Ombudsman’s final report is the conclusion of the systematic investigation into alleged wrongdoings in the tendering and awarding process of five-year public contracts to collect solid waste in Sint Maarten’s various districts. The investigation – which started in 2021 after several contractors filed complaints at the Ombudsman’s Office – has found that the process was unfair and not (sufficiently) transparent.

The PFP MPs submitted a request for an urgent public meeting of Parliament to discuss the Ombudsman’s report on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. MPs Christopher Emmanuel and Sarah Wescot-Williams co-signed the meeting request, which states that the MPs are willing to interrupt their recess if necessary to facilitate this critical meeting, as this is the last meeting week before Parliament goes on break.

“This is the latest in a long-list of the Minister’s governance failures, and the report gives a clear indication that this tendering process was designed to advantage certain contractors at the expense of others,” said MP Gumbs on Monday evening. “There is proof that there was arbitrary decision-making, along with information in the terms of reference being changed and not being clearly communicated to all bidders, only some bidders receiving points for pricing criteria and not others, the emails between the Minister and the acting Head of Infrastructure Management, and, the most glaring fact of all, that the Minister outright obstructed the investigation by deliberately withholding vital pieces of information, such as signed evaluation sheets.”

MP Peterson also had a grim conclusion after reading the Ombudsman’s report. “From the findings, it is obvious that the Minister already had some contractors in mind when starting this process. How else can you explain why he was so heavily involved? Or that the rules seemed to benefit some more than others? Or that some rules were changed at the last minute? Or that Cabinet members were also involved in the process when they shouldn’t be? Or that the Minister tried to shut down the Ombudsman afterwards by saying the investigation was ‘out of scope’ of her legal authority?” questioned MP Peterson.

As a former civil servant in the Ministry of VROMI, the latest fiasco in public accountability is particularly disappointing to MP Peterson, who has previously questioned government’s tender procurement policy on the floor of Parliament, as well as other financial management measures.

“I asked the Minister of Finance about additional policies on the government’s financial administration, and warned that they need to be strengthened,” Peterson said. “At the time, the Minister of Finance told Parliament that we don’t need more laws to better control the government’s use of funds; that our existing laws are insufficient. Having worked in the Ministry of VROMI, I know that the current checks and balances do not protect the public’s money from being misused by Ministers that are eager and determined to go against good governance practices. I know that the current Council of Ministers is aware of this fact as well. The only question left is, why are they okay with letting it happen.”

Regarding the government’s recently-published tender policy, the Ombudsman’s report called it a “modest start.” However, she still found that it “does not fulfill the obligation of the government pursuant to article 47, paragraph 6 of the National accountability ordinance.” This is the exact same portion of the law that MP Peterson questioned the Minister of Finance about in last year’s Public meeting on the country’s budget, which he also reiterated last week in the TEATT committee meeting where the topic of putting the Carnival on bid was discussed.

“A modest start is simply not good enough. This is especially true when we are talking about the tax money that the government has taken from hard-working citizens and spent on dubious contracts. The result of this seemingly-rigged tender process is that the people suffer, as the contractors cannot live up to the obligation to collect waste on behalf of the government. The people need more than modesty, they need capable, effective, honest, and fair governance from leaders who are known and respected for their integrity. This is a bar that the current government, and especially the Minister, has fallen terribly short of,” said MP Gumbs.

Over the past two years, MP Peterson says he has seen an alarming pattern emerge from the behavior and conduct of the Minister of VROMI.

“I’m beginning to run out of fingers to count all of the Minister’s mis-steps and sometimes outright violations of the law. It includes giving away large parcels of land to two close relatives, allowing several buildings to be constructed on the island’s hillsides in contravention of the hillside policy, destroying the mangroves at the stop lights in town in violation of the nature ordinance, trying to hand out long-lease land to relatives, acquaintances and party-supporters in Vineyard Heights, questioning the Ombudsman’s objectiveness and aggressively trying to undermine her authority when she began an investigation into Vineyard Heights, suspiciously trying to place family members and friends on the board of a government-owned company under his portfolio as Minister of VROMI, blatantly lying to MPs about NV GEBE’s ICT audits, to now this biased tender process in which a close relative of his colleague Minister was awarded a contract,” added MP Peterson. “In the last two years, I have seen a Minister committed to setting up his own people, instead of the entire community. I have seen a Minister that is okay with breaking the rules to fulfill his agenda, and who stoops to public intimidation when anyone stands in his way. Not to mention the intimidating and threatening manner in which he addresses the civil servants working under him in the Ministry, who are in constant fear of a warning letter if they do not act according to the Minister’s wishes.”

Important to note in the Ombudsman’s report is the allegations against the acting Secretary General of the Ministry, who is also believed to have held back relevant information requested by the Ombudsman to conduct the investigation. This became clear in the feedback on the synopsis of the hearing with the evaluation committee, in which it was made clear that the committee members were only allowed to communicate with the Ombudsman through the acting Secretary General. The result of this was that certain committee members did not respond officially, and that some of their responses were not sent to the Ombudsman by the acting Secretary General. In addition to that, only the cabinet members of the Minister who sat on the committee were informed of the hearings to be conducted by the Ombudsman, information that was sent to only the Minister and his acting Secretary General. This brings the position of the acting Secretary General into question.

“Several weeks ago, I asked the Minister of VROMI several questions on the current position of Secretary General. And this was exactly why. I asked if the gentleman received a landsbesluit to act as Secretary General, as this is regulated by article 25 of the LMA. I already know the answer; it’s no. And this brings every decision since the individual’s appointment as acting SG, including this whole tender process and how it went, seriously into question,”  Peterson said. “Was it even legal? And what is the result of this report for the victims, the Ministry, and Country Sint Maarten? Because the country will have to pay the damages caused not only by the Minister and his arrogance, but also by his cabinet members and certain civil servants in management positions, who seemingly are all part of the same circle of corruption.”

In October 2021, VROMI Minister Doran was issued a motion of disapproval on the floor of Parliament, with ten (10) MPs voting in favor and two (2) against. The motion, which was initiated by PFP, stemmed from Minister Doran’s handling of the Vineyard Heights long-lease land controversy. A motion of disapproval is one step below a motion of no confidence, which would require the Minister to vacate office.

“We have warned the Minister about his irresponsible and questionable conduct, and I am tired of the constant scandal that seems to follow every official decision that he makes,” said MP Gumbs. “In light of this serious breach of public trust and confidence, and the several others that have preceded it, I urge the Minister to do the honorable act and resign from his position immediately or be prepared to answer to Parliament.”