GB voters still waiting for result of audit of Freeport City Council books

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Oswald Brown

Oswald Brown Writes

By OSWALD T. BROWN

The jury is still out on what impact the local government system has had on the political process in The Bahamas since the passage and implementation of the Local Government Act of 1996, but there is a consensus that it has been quite effective in some Family Island districts.

This is especially true in those districts where residents have been able to put their political differences aside and make decisions in the best interest of their communities. Actually, by design, local government representatives are supposed to be non-political, but in a country as politically polarized as The Bahamas, accomplishing this is as impossible as convincing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tiger Woods to be faithful to just one woman.

In fact, in some districts, even close family members end up on opposite sides of the political divide and everyone knows who supports the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) or the Free National Movement (FNM). Third parties have yet to establish themselves at this level of Bahamian politics.

Local Government elections are scheduled throughout the country for Thursday, June 23, and with a general election due to be held before next May, the campaigns for local government seats in Grand Bahama are just as intense as the campaigns leading up to a general election, particularly for seats on the Freeport City Council. Candidates have erected huge billboards throughout Freeport urging voters to give them their support, and it is no secret that all of them are strong supporters or either the FNM or the PLP, although there are no symbols of their party on the billboards.

There was clear evidence over the past three years that the current Council, under the leadership of Chief Councillor Alvin Smith, was controlled by FNM supporters. Smith, who is one of the representatives for the Lucaya constituency, is the son of C.A. Smith, the former MP for Pineridge, who held several cabinet ministries in governments led by current Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham and is presently the Washington, D.C.-based Bahamas Ambassador to the United States.

Given his political pedigree, it was obvious that Alvin Smith was using the Freeport City Council as a stepping stone to possibly following in his father’s footsteps by becoming a member of the House. If this is indeed true, his choice of Lucaya as his political base may have been encouraged by his politically savvy father, who apparently rightly assessed that incumbent Lucaya MP Neko Grant would not seek reelection.

Rev. Lying Laing MP for Marco City cannot deliver audit reports for the Freeport City Council.

As Chief Councilor, Alvin Smith sent out strong signals that he was campaigning for the Lucaya seat, so much so that a major controversy engulfed the Council in October of 2009 after $50,000 of City Council funds were spent to pave a parking area in Sunshine Park in the Lucaya constituency.

That controversy was exposed by The Freeport News in an article published on October 30 based on information provided by Kevin Ferguson, one of the City of Freeport Council representatives for Marco City, who noted at the time that no one on the Council, including Chief Councillor Smith, “seemed to know who authorized the project.”

Ferguson is known to be a die-hard supporter of the PLP, so some FNM supporters accused him of “playing politics.” However, just a few weeks earlier, Chief Councillor Smith was accused of running “a one man show” by Deputy Chief Councillor Joanna Newton-Russell, a long-time strong supporter of the FNM, over “his alleged use of money from the council’s budget without approval for the construction of a park in the Arden Forest area, which was being built in partnership with Member of Parliament for High Rock Kenneth Russell,” according to an article in The Freeport News.

Although Lucaya MP Neko Grant eventually claimed that he provided the $50,000 spent for paving the parking area at Sunshine Park , the controversy prompted Minister of State for Finance Zhivargo Laing, MP for Marco City, to call for an audit of the City of Freeport Council’s books.

This move, however, did not silence Ferguson, the Marco City Council member. In an article published by The Freeport News, Ferguson described it as “another feeble attempt by a Junior Minister to do damage control for the chief councilor, who refuses to defend himself.”

“I make this statement because one cannot determine if any moral or ethical wrongdoing took place by auditing the financial records of the council,” Ferguson was quoted as saying.

Noting that no one was being accused of “stealing any money,” Ferguson added: “But the chief councilor has made procedural errors and conducted himself not according to protocol. He acted in the capacity of an individual rather than a member of a corporate body.”

Nonetheless, the audit ordered by Laing was conducted at taxpayers’ expense and he confirmed to Freeport News reporter Lededra Marche, in a story published in that daily on November 23, 2009, that it had been completed and he was awaiting an official report.

That’s more than 18 months ago, and the results of that audit have still not yet been made public.

Why is it that the people’s money was spent to conduct an audit and voters in Grand Bahama are still as much in the dark about the results as they were back then? Is Laing still waiting for the “official report” or is this further evidence that he lacks the ability required to be the chief advisor to Prime Minister Ingraham, in his capacity as Minister for Finance? Certainly, any other individual who did not enjoy the special relationship he has with Ingraham would have been fired a long time ago..

In any case, these are questions that demand answers before voters in Grand Bahama go to the polls on June 23 to elect local government representatives.

Unquestionably, voters in Grand Bahama owe Ferguson a debt of gratitude for being so vigilant in exposing what he considered to be wrongdoings on the council. He is seeking reelection in Marco City and voters in that constituency can show their appreciation by ensuring that he is returned to the council.

Meanwhile, considering his poor performance as Chief Councillor, it is not surprising that Alvin Smith decided not to seek reelection. However, it is quite possible that he may have his sights set on becoming the next MP for Lucaya, given the fact that his father was one of Ingraham’s strongest political allies.

At any other time, this fact alone would have made Alvin Smith the front-runner to replace Grant in Lucaya. But as it turns out, the Lucaya seat is the most sought after seat in Grand Bahama by FNMs who want to become a Member of Parliament mainly because they mistakenly believe that it is still an FNM stronghold.

The truth of the matter, however, is that Grand Bahama has been so badly neglected by the FNM that it is highly unlikely that there are any seats in Grand Bahama, which the FNM once boasted was “FNM Country, that can be considered as an “FNM stronghold.”