Thursday, Sep 20, 2018
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State of turmoil

BPL conflicts come to a head
From left: Whitney Heastie, Desmond Bannister and Darnell Osborne.

It has been clear for quite some time now that all is not well at the Bahamas Power & Light Company (BPL).

After being appointed not long after the Free National Movement (FNM) took the seat of power last year, the board, headed by respected accountant Darnell Osborne, seemed to be serious about addressing the critical issue of power generation and BPL’s financial crisis.

One of the board’s early actions was to fire Pamela Hill as CEO. Soon after, the government got rid of the U.S.-based PowerSecure, which was brought in by the Christie administration.

But in the months that followed, tensions rose at BPL amid ongoing problems with equipment and the growing frustrations of consumers who had long been promised a more stable and affordable power supply.

Over the last several weeks, stories emerged about power struggles and conflicts among senior board members and others with oversight of BPL.

Yesterday, it all came to a head when reports surfaced that the government asked the board to resign.

Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister, who is usually quick to respond to inquiries and explain matters in his portfolio, was silent on the issue, promising to release a statement this morning.

Osborne had no comment either when we called her.

Paul Maynard, who heads the line staff union, told us that he and Anthony Christie, president of the managerial union, were called into a meeting with the minister and informed that the old board is gone and a new board will be in place by Friday.

National Review understands from internal BPL sources that Osborne’s authority was being repeatedly undermined in respect of hiring and other decisions made at the company.

It would be curious if she indeed has been asked to resign.

On July 13, just over a month ago, her job description as executive chairperson was outlined in a letter written by Acting Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Works Antoinette L. Thompson to Whitney Heastie, BPL CEO.

“The executive chair is an appointed position that will support BPL by providing governance, leadership and strategic support,” the job summary read.

“The executive chair helps and mediates board actions with respect to organizational priorities and company policy.”

The executive chair is accountable to the minister and liaises with the CEO, who is exclusively responsible for the daily management of the company, and its operational and personnel decisions to the exclusion of any board member or committee of the board.

On the same date, Thompson provided a job description for BPL Executive Director Patrick Rollins, whose role was to support the BPL administration, its programs and strategic plan.

Again, there has not yet been any explanation from any official government source about the latest developments at BPL.

Transparency

A series of letters addressed to Osborne recently from various stakeholders pointed to significant concerns with respect to the functioning of BPL and its decision making process.

The first letter was written by the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC), which said it has received communications from several of its members outlining matters of concern in relation to the process conducted by BPL for the requests for proposals for short term power generation and supply of fuel oils.

“Given the significance of energy security, stability and affordability, the process conducted for the requests for proposal is one paramount to our members and the wider Bahamian society, and therefore requires the greatest level of transparency and accountability,” the chamber stated.

“Accordingly, the BCCEC addresses the matters of concern to BPL in an effort to have grater understanding of the process and resolve the matters of concern.”

The chamber said the requests for proposal were specific to short term power generation and supply of fuel oils, whereas, based on public communications by BPL, the contract awarded is for the construction of new energy plant facilities and regasification facilities.

“Given that the requests for proposals did not specifically address the requirements for the contract ultimately awarded, the BCCEC requires clarification on how bids that included proposals for energy plant facilities and regasification facilities could be reasonably compared and evaluated if there was no uniform basis for the responses to the requests for proposal.”

It said in the absence of requirements for proposals for long term power generation, bidders that adhered to the requirements of the requests for proposals, but would have had an interest in bidding on long term power generation solutions, were disadvantaged by the lack of comprehensive requests for proposals that covered all services being considered by BPL.

The chamber then outlined a number of other issues in respect of this matter, saying, “The propriety and transparency of such an important process cannot be compromised or be perceived to have been compromised as the Commonwealth of The Bahamas seeks to modernize its infrastructure and utilities services and will require the confidence of domestic and international businesses that participate in such processes.”

Other concerns

Then came the letter from the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA) on July 30.

URCA’s CEO Stephen Bereaux wrote that the regulator was concerned with “a lack of responsiveness by BPL” to requests from URCA for information required to exercise and perform its functions and powers in accordance with the provisions of the Electricity Act and the URCA Act.

Bereaux noted that URCA’s role as mandated by the Electricity Act is to provide an independent assessment of the activities surrounding the procurement of additional generation capacity in an effort to ensure that procurement methodology and process are fair and transparent, among other things.

“…Given the essential nature and the tenuous state of the electricity supply in New Providence, there is a significant stakeholders’ interest in this widely publicized initiative,” he continued.

“URCA cautions that to date it has already fielded some potentially disruptive inquires concerning the process to date from stakeholders, and foresees other adverse repercussions should BPL continue to ignore the prescribed process.”

Bereaux pointed out that from a regulatory perspective, the need to demonstrate due diligence in the procurement of generation resources cannot be overstated given the lifespan of such decisions and the impact of the same on the quality and cost of electricity to end-users.

He noted that it was not URCA’s intent to intervene in the day-to-day operations of BPL, but rather to carry out its functions in an effective and timely manner for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Confusion

Next came the letter from the BPL unions, dated August 9, raising concerns about hiring practices at BPL and noting that while it has been a month since employees have started to leave as a result of the VSEP exercise, the unions have not gotten any invitation to meet with BPL executives to discuss the new structure that BPL said it is presenting to the staff along with the way forward for the company.

“Presently, the company is in a state of confusion and chaos,” the unions’ leaders wrote. “We are short-staffed in many critical areas and no plan is in place to address the situations.”

And yesterday, Astrid Bodie, secretary of the Bahamas Electrical Workers Union, wrote to BPL’s Andros employees advising them not to take any directives from a recently appointed consultant.

“All vacant positions must be advertised and according to the company’s records, this vacancy was never advertised internally or externally,” Bodie said in a union notice.

“…Andros has employees that are capable and highly qualified to fill that position and should have been given the opportunity to apply.”

It is worrying that BPL has descended to this state, which has reportedly had a negative impact on staff morale — and understandably so.

Meanwhile, the public is left wondering whether BPL will ever get on stable footing after years of repeated failures of its power grid and high energy costs.

A full explanation is needed on the state of affairs at the power company.

After all that has been said and done about addressing these critical issues, many wonder whether more has been said than done.

There is a general feeling that we are back at square one with the critical issues that continue to create an unstable power supply.

What has gone wrong?

Has the board been left alone to do its job?

What really has led to this state of chaos and confusion the unions now speak of?

It is time to take us out of the dark.

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