30 May, 2009

Pyramids


Anguilla’s own pyramids of the sun and the moon. I hate to be writing this. It might appear that I am delighting in the misfortune that has overwhelmed Robert FX Sillerman. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Sillerman’s dream playground of a Greg Norman golf course and luxury hotel project in Anguilla has turned to ashes. The bankers have run out of money. Credit Suisse has too much money loaned to golf course projects. They appear to have said they will not put one more dollar into Flag. The project has closed down. It now lies abandoned. The hotel buildings and the villas are incomplete. Exposed to the elements, they are beginning to deteriorate.


Watering of the golf course first stopped in January. It restarted in March for a few weeks. It has now been stopped for the past two months. This is the dry season. No rain is falling. The grass on the golf course is dying for lack of water.


The tragedy of our abandoned golf course and hotel project reminds me now of nothing more than the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon at Teotihuacan. Any one who has ever visited Mexico City and who has not taken the tour of the pyramids has missed an experience that sears itself into the memory. I will never forget the feeling of exaltation I experienced as I first set eyes on those magnificent structures. The view from the tops of the two major pyramids is stunning. You are left in awe at the sheer extravagance and waste as you contemplate the amount of labour and treasure that must have gone into the construction.




Just a week ago, I was reading an article in the New York Times about a certain Bobby Ginn. His 1,900-acre project, called Bella Collina, was designed to hold 800 homes and a golf course. Today, only 48 houses dot the landscape, and just three are occupied. It is a ghost town. So is Tesoro. This is another golf resort opened by Mr Ginn near Port St Lucie. There just 150 houses sit on 900 waiting lots. A third project of his is the Conservatory in Palm Cost. It is even more barren. Only 5 of a total of 340 lots have been constructed. The banks are foreclosing. His properties are being sold off. Most of his projects were funded with loans organized by the same Credit Suisse.


Someone has now sent me the following photographs of the abandoned hotel and golf course at Flag in Anguilla. The resemblance to Teotihuacan is uncanny. Will the ruins last as long?


The fairways turning brown


The ponds drying up


Weeds growing in the sand traps


The greens turning brown


A small spot of green around one of the sprinklers


The river has run dry


Soon the forest will have reclaimed the ruins


Anguilla's very own pyramids?


These villas look almost complete


These villas look like they have a long way to go


The sense of desolation and abandonment is overwhelming


Even the heavy equipment appears to have bush growing up around it


Sillerman meant well for Anguilla. His vision, and the investment he made to back it up, helped pull Anguilla out of the barren years of the Hubert Hughes Administration. Does no one remember what it was like to be in business or to be looking for a job in Anguilla in the late 1980s?


If Sillerman’s money had been better managed by those in whose hands he placed it, no one would be pointing fingers at him now. He was badly served by his managers and his employees. He is taking the blame for everything. Even for not repatriating the Chinese. They worked for Ashtrom, not Sillerman. When Ashtrom posted cash deposits to guarantee their air fares, government spent it on foolishness. Now, when they are not fighting among themselves in their squalid quarters, the Chinese compete with Anguillians for scarce construction work.


So far, it is reported that US$750 million, three quarters of a billion dollars, has been invested in this project. Credit Suisse has refused to inject the remaining $200 million needed to complete the project. They say they have been burned by these expensive golf course projects. I am not surprised. Sillerman is blamed for not coming up with the money personally. Now, that is unfair.


Other than being too trusting, and not knowing how history has treated wealthy trusting investors in Anguilla, I do not know of anything that Sillerman has done wrong.


The real victims of this fiasco are Sillerman and the people of Anguilla. We are both the victims of fraud and mismanagement.


Related posts:

18 January 2009: Not Happening


29 May, 2009

Pinoys


Were we na├»ve to believe that hotel development in Anguilla was really meant to benefit Anguillians? Now, why do I ask that question? There is a website that advertises jobs available for Filipinos. It is called Pinoy Abroad OFW Jobs. It is hosted by the POEA. I have been learning some new words. Pinoy is a demonym referring to Filipino people. As I understand it, OFW stands for “overseas foreign worker”. If I get it right, POEA stands for the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration. This is their advertisement that caught my attention:




Could someone tell me who is advertising these jobs in Anguilla to unemployed Filipinos?


The employment agency in question is Skyworld Business Merger Inc. Who is Skyworld? Who is it working for?


Did I repeatedly hear our government representatives assure us that the jobs of bartenders, bookkeepers, chefs, truck drivers, kitchen helpers, maintenance men, sales coordinators, housekeepers, sales staff, and waiters and waitresses, would be reserved for Anguillians? I thought that in future, only nuclear physicists and neural surgeons would be permitted to be brought in from overseas. I thought relatively unskilled jobs were absolutely reserved for all the youngsters coming out of school. Not to mention all the experienced hotel workers laid off by the half-full hotels, or made to work three days a week.


Note the numbers of positions offered in this one advertisement: room attendants, 20. Bartenders, 20. Bookkeepers, 5. Chefs, 25. Truckdrivers, 10. Kitchen helpers, 20. Maintenance men, 15. Sales coordinators, 10. Housekeeping staff, 15. Sales staff, 10. Waiters and waitresses, 30. I make that a total of 180 jobs on offer.


Does anyone remember the Chief Minister’s words at the groundbreaking ceremony for Viceroy? He said then, “We agreed to this project because we believe we have an obligation to find the wherewithal for all Anguillians to find something to do. . . . We will prepare the country for the youth of tomorrow and this is why we went ahead to agree for this project.”


Is this Philippine advertisement evidence of a sell out? If so, who has approved it?


Or, does Anguilla now enjoy such full employment that there is a desperate need to bring all these Asian workers to Anguilla?


28 May, 2009

PAC


What else could Hon Edison Baird have done to get the Airport accounts? In late 2003 the government of Anguilla budgeted $60 million to extend the Wallblake airport. Fritz Smith, recently appointed Treasurer of the governing United Front political party, and nephew of the Hon Chief Minister, was the Project Manager.


Fritz Smith

With the expansion of the airport, several houses at both ends of the extended runway were condemned. Negotiations with the owners were happily concluded. New houses were said to have been built elsewhere on the island for some of the owners. Some people got land, others got money, and yet others got house and land.


In August 2008, Eddie Baird applied in the House of Assembly by way of a question to the Minister of Finance for an accounting of the expenditure on these replacement houses. The Minister promised to present it to him shortly. The accounts were not forthcoming.


Victor Banks, Minister of Finance

At a sitting of the House on 10 February 2009, Mr Baird complained to the Speaker that he still had not received the answer to the question he had asked.


A month later, responding to another question from Mr Baird in the House on 19 March 2009, Mr Banks put off producing the information until mid-July at the earliest.


Subsequently, in an open letter to the Chief Minister published in The Anguillian newspaper on 14 April, Brent Davis, leader of the Anguilla Progressive Party, demanded the same information. His first four questions give the flavour of the issues that are agitating the public:


“1) What was the initial estimated cost of the Wallblake expansion project?

2) How many individual payments were made to persons for properties such as dwelling houses, other buildings and lands?

3) Were there exchanges of Government lands with any individuals associated with the project?

4) How many persons are still in possession of their original properties, although they have already benefited monetarily or received lands in what should have been an exchange?”


We already know that a Freedom of Information Act would make all this delaying by the Minister impossible. If we had such an Act, Mr Davis would be able to demand the information. The relevant government officers would not be able to fob him off. If they tried to stall, a court would make the necessary order. The civil servant or politician refusing to comply would face imprisonment for contempt. Are there any additional tools available to members of the House of Assembly? What about the Public Accounts Committee?


The Legislative Assembly (Procedure) Rules 1976 are the rules and regulations that govern the House of Assembly. They provide for a PAC. Rule 66A explains that this is a Standing Committee of the House. It is supposed to be established at the beginning of each session of the House, and it continues through adjournments. The Rule says it consists of at least 3 and not more than 5 members. It is drawn from both sides of the House. Its chairperson is the Leader of the Opposition. It requires a resolution of the Minister of Finance to set it up, and the resolution must be approved by the House. That is not an obstacle. It would take a very careless Minister of Finance to reject a proposal by the Opposition to appoint the members of the PAC. If the Opposition does not demand a PAC, the Minister is probably not going to go out of his way to establish a watchdog to check on how he is performing his duties. So, it is up to the Opposition to take the first step, and demand the setting up of the PAC. They have never done so. There has never in the history of Anguilla been a Public Accounts Committee established to oversee the government’s expenditure of public funds.


The Committee has work to do. It is supposed to check that the funds spent by government have been spent for the purposes prescribed by the House. It has the mandate to look out for any expenditure that has not been authorised. It can demand to know what savings have been made elsewhere to enable over-expenditure in any area of the budget. It is mandated to make “an effective examination” of the public accounts. It can summon any civil servant to give information on any expenditure by any Department of Government. The Rules contemplate that the Committee may demand office space and secretarial help in carrying out its functions.


Rule 68 provides that any witness before the Committee may be examined in the same way as a witness before the Supreme Court. The Committee may hire an attorney to do the cross-examining if they wish. The witness is sworn to tell the truth. You know what that means? Any witness telling a lie is likely to face a perjury charge. The last time I checked, the maximum penalty for perjury was ten years imprisonment. Which civil servant who knows about some wrongful expenditure is gong to hide it and risk ten years imprisonment?


The House of Assembly is supposed to be the guardian of the public funds. The fact that it does not function at all suggests to me that members of the House have abdicated this responsibility that they owe to the public.


Edison Baird, Member of the House of Assembly

If the Opposition had done its job and demanded that the Minister call for the setting up of the PAC, Eddie Baird would not have to be begging the Minister for these figures. He would be able to summon Fritz Smith before a sitting of the Committee and grill him on what exactly was spent on whom.

24 May, 2009

Airport News





With a Freedom of Information Act, Hon Edison Baird would long ago have been able to get the information he has been asking for. The purpose of an FOI Act is to ensure transparency and integrity in public life. So long as public servants and ministers can keep official government business hidden from view, corruption and waste is encouraged. If we had such a law in Anguilla, opposition member of the Anguilla House of Assembly, Eddie Baird, would not have to be pleading with the Minister of Finance to share with us the figures on how much money government has spent on re-housing the people displaced by the airport expansion project. The Minister would not be able to keep stalling from handing over the information, and copies of all the documents related to and supporting the information.



We have all been following the recent debacle in the British House of Commons. I wonder how many of us have recognised the important part that the Freedom of Information Act played in exposing the shenanigans of those parliamentarians?



In the UK, Members of Parliament are expected to live in or near London. If they come from a far-away constituency that means renting or purchasing a second home near Parliament. They are permitted to claim for the expense. A journalist, Heather Brooke, requested of the Speaker’s office copies of “second homes expenses” claimed by Members of Parliament.




Heather Brooke



The Speaker refused to give her the copies of the expense claim forms that she was asking for.




House of Commons



So, she took the case to court under the Freedom of Information Act. She won the case. The court ordered the Speaker’s Office to hand over the information. Before it could be officially handed over, someone leaked the information to the Daily Telegraph Newspaper. The newspaper has gleefully been publishing all the outrageous claims for expenses made by members of all three major parties.

  • Elliot Morley, a former Labour Environment Minister, claimed ₤16,000.00 in mortgage interest for more than 18 months after paying off the loan.

  • Fabian Hamilton declared his mother’s London house as his main residence, allowing him to claim allowance for his real home.

  • John Maples, deputy chairman of the Tory party, declared a room in his private members’ club in Pall Mall has his main home, allowing him to claim allowances on his real home.

Some MPs have been so embarrassed by these revelations that they have announced they will not run again in the next elections. Others have been forced to resign from official positions. The police are investigating to see if any crimes have been committed.



The press and public were up in arms at the efforts of the Speaker, Michael Martin, to suppress the information. Now, even he has announced that he will resign his office, the first Speaker in 300 years to be forced from office.





Hon Michael Martin



The Prime Minister has concluded that Parliament must no longer be permitted to run its own financial affairs. These matters will in future be handled by independent regulators. They will determine even what salary Members of Parliament will be paid.




In future, no sleazy UK politician will be safe from the details of his corruption being revealed to the public.



It is not an exaggeration to say that this scandal has created a revolution in how the British are governed.



All because of the Freedom of Information Act.



Who says we do not need such a law in Anguilla?



Related posts:
12 May 2009: Airport Costs
21 July 2008: Barbados
19 July 2008: FOI Act
4 April 2007: Freedom of Information




21 May, 2009

Airport Costs


How can we ever find out before the next elections what money the government paid out in airport expenses? A couple of days ago, I heard Edison Baird on radio again. He was complaining that for the past several months he had been requesting information in the House of Assembly of Victor Banks, the Minister of Finance. He wanted an accounting of how much money the government had spent on re-housing the persons who had been displaced by the airport expansion project of a couple of years ago. I have heard him ask for this information several times in the House of Assembly. Each time, the Minister promises him that it will be forthcoming shortly. A couple of months pass, and Mr Baird complains again. Mr Baird has now explained why he wants this information. He has reason to believe that some favoured home-owners have been paid much more in compensation than their houses were worth. He is suggesting that there was corruption, or at least favouritism, in the way government largesse was dispensed in the airport expansion project.


You may well ask if this is the way the country is supposed to be run. Is it proper for a Member of the House of Assembly to be denied this information? No, of course not. But, what is equally sad, it seems to me, is that no one is discussing how this information is supposed to be got. This information concerns public funds. How public funds are spent is not confidential or secret information. It is supposed to be public knowledge. Mr Baird should not have to be begging the Minister to do him the favour of sharing this information with him. Mr Baird is not only entitled to this information, there ought to be the tools in place available for him to get it when the Minister stalls him. These tools are well known. They are (1) the Public Accounts Committee; and (2) the Freedom of Information Act.


This duet of tools is designed to ensure that how government spends public funds is published. The first is available only to members of the House of Assembly. The second is supposed to be available to all of us members of the public. We don’t seem seriously interested in putting these tools in place in Anguilla. To get a Public Accounts Committee, all that is necessary is for the members of the House to take the necessary steps to have the Speaker establish the Committee. To get a FOI Act passed, all that is necessary is for a Bill to be produced and passed into law. If the government won’t introduce a Bill, any member can do so.


Why do we not have these two instruments at work in Anguilla? Could it be because our elected politicians are not really interested in good governance? Is it that they are not really concerned whether or not public funds are being mis-spent? Am I just being cynical to think that their concern is that they are not the ones in power mis-spending public funds. In other words, might it be just that they wish that they could have been the ones with their hands on the levers of public expenditure?


If that is so, then Mr Baird will be quite content to continue to raise the question ineffectually. He will repeatedly suggest that there was some questionable expenditure. He won’t actually need an answer to his question. It is a political tactic, of ancient West Indian heritage, to suggest by innuendo that government has mis-spent public funds. It helps if the Minister adds fuel to the fire by not producing the information requested in a prompt and through manner. The idea is not to bring information out into the public. The real intent is to sow suspicion about the honesty and integrity of your political foes in order to gain a political advantage with discontented voters.


I would prefer it if the matter was dealt with seriously.


It is the political party that promises a Freedom of Information Act within 100 days of coming to power that I will support. It is the party that espouses an Integrity in Public Life Act and a Register of Interests for members of the House of Assembly, that I am looking for. It is the party that promises to establish the Public Accounts Committee to check on the way in which they spend public funds that will demonstrate their worthiness to govern this country. I suspect that it is only the Anguilla Progressive Party that will seriously place these on the agenda. None of the other political parties have expressed any interest in this issue.


These laws and procedures are in place all over the Commonwealth. It will take no time at all to produce suitable versions for Anguilla. A competent legal draughtsman, of whom we have several, could produce Anguillian drafts in weeks if not days.



20 May, 2009

Voting


As an Anguillian, how do I get registered to vote? Getting registered to vote in Anguilla has never been easier. The law provides for a system of continuous voter registration. If you are over 18 years of age, and you are not on the voters list, get registered. Pricilla Gumbs is the Electoral Registration Officer. She has explained how it is done. Go and see her at the Passport Office, or telephone her, if you have any question.



Priscilla Gumbs and Chantel Ruan


If you are young, never voted before, but are qualified to vote, make sure you are registered this week. You never know when the next elections will be called.


Anguilla needs a spring cleaning. Sweep them out, sweep them out. It is time to sweep them all out.


The APP needs your vote in the upcoming elections.


Related posts:

Belongers Voting: 6 August 2007


16 May, 2009

Elections


Who will we be voting for, and why? The people of Anguilla go to the polls sometime in the next few months. A few words on who we will be voting for, and why, are in order. Petty used to do most of the writing and explaining in this area, but since he is Supervisor of Elections, he has been keeping his oar dry. Let us take a first look at how we vote and why in very general terms.


The Anguillian system of representation and government is the Westminster system. This is quite different from the US Presidential system. Most of us are familiar with the US system from looking at TV coverage of the recent elections there. In brief, the US system can be described as follows. The people elect both the Executive and the Legislature. Everyone gets to vote for the President. They also vote for members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The winner of the contest for President then appoints his cronies and hangers-on to his Cabinet. The checks and balance are that the Senate must approve his appointments to Cabinet. The system was deliberately designed by the first great US statesmen. It was the product of thought and debate, and has lasted for over 200 years.


The Westminster System evolved in England over a period of 900 years. In the days of the British Empire, it was transferred to all the countries ruled by Britain. It continues to live on in the Commonwealth today. This is true even in those countries that are republics which have replaced the Queen by a President. In the Commonwealth, the people elect representatives to a Parliament. The parliamentarians appoint the executive. The people have no say in who becomes Prime Minister or Premier or Chief Minister. After the supervisor of elections has declared which party has won the most seats in parliament, the party leader can expect to become the next chief minister. The party leader goes to the head of state, the president or the monarch, or the governor in our case. The party leader informs the governor that he or she has the control of the parliament. The governor appoints him or her as the chief minister. The chief minister appoints the members of cabinet from among the members of parliament. The executive thus sits in the legislature, and controls it from within.


It is a representative system that was wrung by the people through force and conflict out of the hands of the hereditary kings and nobles who claimed to rule by divine right. Unlike the US system, it was not the product of any thought or planning. To this day, there is no written British Constitution. Much of the practical working of the British Constitution rests on practice and convention. Vitally important constitutional principles are not laid down authoritatively in any statutory document. Academics and politicians argue to this day over what exactly are the basic principles of the British Constitution. As with all such accidental systems, it transfers to other countries very badly. The British Constitution works fairly well in practice in the UK. It has been a disaster for most of the ex-colonies who have adopted it without adequate safeguards.


An essential characteristic of the British Constitution is that it retains the forms of absolute rule, while insisting on democratic rule in practice. The freedoms of the British have been won by them through centuries of conflict, including the execution and forced abdication of kings. No such struggle of the people occurred in the vast majority of the ex-colonies. Coming so recently out of a system of absolute colonial rule, our traditions of democracy and liberty are weak. The result is that the executive branch holds all the strings of power, both formally and informally. There are few, if any, checks and balances. The Westminster system has been described as a dictatorship of the Prime Minister. Absolute rule has been transferred to the Prime Minister and his colleagues. This is so everywhere except in the UK, where the press, parliament and the people ensure practical limits to abuse. Most of the time, anyway.


With no checks and balances in our colonial Constitution, we the people are left with no remedy except to throw them out every five or ten years and hope a new lot will do better.


That is why I will vote APP this coming election. There is no alternative. If my favoured candidate’s party wins, and they do a good job for the first five years, I’ll vote for another five years. If they do a good job for ten years, it will still be time to change them in the end, by voting for a new lot of representatives.


In the absence of a whole raft of checks and balances, it is the only tool we have for insisting on good governance.



15 May, 2009

Swine flu


Only healthy travellers pass through Blowing Point. Most sensible people recognised that this whole H1N1 Influenza A pandemic panic was a media-driven frenzy from the start. Mexico had the worst of it. A few hundred people were infected. A total of 26 died. Deaths elsewhere from infection have been minimal. As of Tuesday, total worldwide deaths stood at 53. The math shows there is a 1 in 250 or 0.4% chance of dying. A normal annual winter flu outbreak would cause more fatalities than this one has. The H5N1 avian flu episode last year produced more fatalities. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 30 million. The 1957 pandemic killed two million. Even the 1968 pandemic killed a million. If people die from flu in the Southern hemisphere this coming winter, and many thousands will die, the betting is it will be from the common flu, not swine flu.


Just as the epidemic everywhere in the Northern hemisphere is in decline, we in Anguilla have to show our solidarity with stupidness and join in the frenzy.


Have you seen the new form they give you to fill out when you land in Anguilla? I understand this form is part of a regional initiative, and was not invented in Anguilla. It looks like this:


As you hustle with 40-odd other passengers for a place in the queue at Blowing Point, an Immigration Officer appears. She tells you that you must fill out this swine flu questionnaire. You have to do it before you get to Immigration. So, you fill it out while standing and being jostled in line. You take it to Immigration. The officer looks at it. She gives it back to you. She tells you to hand it in to Customs. Customs looks at it, and tosses it aside.


Or, you are among the hundreds of visitors from St Martin for the Regatta last weekend. You are arriving at an “upscale tourist destination”. So, you have arrived on your mega yacht at Crocus Bay. Immigration makes everyone get off the boat. You take the dinghy to the beach. You find a taxi to take you to Sandy Ground. There, Immigration makes everybody fill out the form. By now, God alone knows how many people you have infected. Yes, I know you are not supposed to land at Crocus Bay, but they do.


Didn’t the designer of this form realise I am supposed to read it before I fill it in? Did he really intend to put that final notification at the end of the form for my information? It says clearly that if I answer “Yes” to any part of the questionnaire, I am to be isolated. “Isolated” means I am to be separated from my family that I am travelling with. I will be taken away, by force, if necessary. I will then be put through various Hospital procedures. It may take days, if not weeks, before I am allowed to go about my business or enjoy my holiday. In those circumstances, which fool would answer yes to any one of the questions? Which one of us is going to admit to ever having visited Mexico? I would suppress my cough even if I had to choke. Who would be so stupid as to admit to having sneezed in the past year.



Faced with the information at the bottom of this form, I would deny I had a fever anytime in the last ten years. Breathing would never have been easier than it is now. I would not admit to having had a sore throat since I was a child.


Whatever they intend to do with the hapless traveller who answers “Yes” to anything on this form, I think they should keep that last bit of information confidential. Let the officer spring it on him in ambush if he has answered “Yes”.


Next thing, we will be banning imports of pork meat.


Just because this is a government form does not mean that it is backed by law. It is not an Immigration form. Nor is it a Customs form. It is a hastily made up medical form. Has anybody even checked if it has the force of law behind it? Do I commit any offence if I fill it in falsely?


I seriously doubt it.