Thursday, Aug 22, 2019

Damaged brand

The decision by the government to rent Town Centre Mall to house the General Post Office has dealt a black eye to the Minnis administration and is damaging its brand.

Close attention to the details revealed on this matter makes it easy to see why some taxpayers are suspicious of the deal.

To be clear, the Minnis administration has been able to secure a deal for the post office that is better than the deals the Christie administration had looked at, but it is the current government’s handling of this matter that has left it in an unfortunate position.

As has been widely reported, the mall is owned by St. Anne’s MP Brent Symonette and his brother.

Last October, Parliament passed a resolution exempting Symonette from vacating his seat after he declared his interest in the government contract.

The constitution at Article 49 (1) (f) empowers the House of Assembly to exempt a member from vacating his seat if that member “before becoming interested in such a contract” or “as soon as practicable after becoming so interested discloses to the House the nature of such contract and his business therein”.

“I don’t know of anyone else in history that’s had a lease taken before resolution in the House of Assembly to rent a building,” said Symonette, noting that he acted in accordance with the constitutional requirement.

The controversy was sparked again two weeks ago after Symonette resigned from Cabinet.

Although he stressed that his resignation had nothing to do with the post office matter or any other topical discussion surrounding conflicts of interest, many in the public still think otherwise.

The government would be foolish to ignore the perceptions that have set in as it relates to Brent Symonette and the contracts to companies connected to him.

Hot Mix

Symonette has long carried the stain of conflict of interest. In 2001, he resigned as chairman of the Airport Authority after a contract was awarded to Bahamas Hot Mix.

More recent awards to the company continue to grab people’s attention.

Symonette’s resignation from Cabinet coincided with national chatter surrounding contracts to Bahamas Hot Mix — a company in which his children’s trust has a minority interest.

Bahamas Hot Mix was awarded a contract to carry out rehabilitation work on a runway and taxiway at Lynden Pindling International Airport. Work on the $20 million project began last month.

Nassau Airport Development Company (NAD) stated in a release that the project could cause delays to the traveling public.

Hot Mix submitted the most competitive bid of the four companies that bid for the project, officials said.

Last month, Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister defended the decision to award Bahamas Hot Mix three contracts for water improvement projects on the Family Islands, noting that all of the other companies that submitted bids were disqualified — through a process independent of The Bahamas government — for not meeting the requirements of the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB).

Still, some Bahamians question these contract awards.

They assume Symonette’s resignation from Cabinet is connected to the ongoing, heated discussions over these contracts.

When we sat with Symonette on July 1, a day after he resigned, he explained that he never intended to serve in Cabinet beyond 65 — an age he will reach in December. He said it made sense to give the minister replacing him the opportunity to start at the beginning of the budget year.

The mall

Symonette’s exit tour has had unintended consequences.

His comments on a ZNS radio program, “The Conversation” with Shenique Miller, in particular, resulted in journalists and political observers revisiting the finer details of the post office deal.

Symonette said he figured there was no way the government was going to rent from him and his brother.

But he said Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis called him early one morning while he was in Mexico and advised, “We are going to go ahead with the lease.”

Symonette said he told Minnis he could “deliver it by Christmas if it’s no Rolls Royce”.

The former minister said he pointed out to Minnis that the whole question of conflict of interest had to be dealt with and the PM advised that “we will do a resolution in the House of Assembly”.

Symonette said the prime minister asked him what rent the government would have to pay and he informed Minnis the rent would be $12 per square foot as opposed to the $25 the government usually pays for rent.

This amounts to $700,000 a year and not $900,000 as the government previously said, according to Symonette, who revealed that less space than originally planned is being rented.

Symonette also revealed that the “landlord” put in some $500,000 worth of “extras” for the government like furniture “and everything else” — money the government will pay back over five years with interest.

The former minister’s revelation that the prime minister spoke with him directly on the rental matter, and that he directly informed the prime minister of the rental charge, was seen by some as direct evidence that the information the government provided to Parliament in its resolution and during the debate back in October was inaccurate.

The resolution states in part that one of the beneficial owners of the mall is a serving Cabinet minister “who did not take part in the discussions leading to the decision to accept the offer to lease portions of the building”.

Symonette, at the time minister of financial services, trade and industry and immigration, was in Mexico City on October 4 attending the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners Conference. Presumably, the call came during that trip. (We are not aware of any other trip he made to Mexico last year.)

The resolution on the Town Centre Mall was tabled on October 17 and passed on October 24.

The suggestion in Symonette’s statement was that Cabinet had already made the decision to go with Town Centre Mall, although it did not yet know how much the rent would cost.

So the language in the resolution — that the minister did not take part in the discussions “leading to the decision” — could very well be accurate.

However, the public should be forgiven for its questions on the matter, given conflicting reports.

In a story published on October 17, The Tribune states that Symonette, who was in Miami, said a day earlier that he knew nothing about the proposed rental of the property.

His call from the prime minister — the call in which he gave the PM the rental price and discussed what he could and could not deliver — would obviously have taken place prior to the resolution being drafted and tabled. In other words, it would have taken place prior to his conversation with The Tribune on October 16.

Regarding Cabinet’s decision on the rental of his mall, Symonette is quoted as saying, “I’m not sure because I have been out of town so I wasn’t part of Cabinet today.

“I wouldn’t have been part of any Cabinet discussions on that.”

While Symonette told National Review on October 23 — a day before the resolution was passed — that he did not know what the current general plans were for the post office, he at least knew, based on his revelation about this discussion with the prime minister, that he could not deliver a Rolls Royce to the government, but a Volkswagen.

Symonette said at the time, “I have declared my interest. I didn’t come looking for this deal. The government approached me. I didn’t approach the government. I was told that, under no circumstances, that the government was going to rent the property from me, and they went and bought some other property. It turned out to be too expensive so the government contacted me.”

The other property Symonette was talking about was the old Phil’s Food Services building on Gladstone Road.

The resolution passed last October states the government had worked to acquire the building, “but only recently discovered that the latent (hidden) structural defects and other technical issues would require a massive expenditure of taxpayer dollars in conducting extensive renovations to the entire building which would take at least a year or more”.

Defects?

A September 7, 2018 report prepared by McACE Technical Services Ltd. for the Ministry of Public Works indicated no serious concerns with structural “defects”, however.

The report, tabled in Parliament on October 24 by Englerston MP Glenys Hanna-Martin, states: “Our investigations reveal that there are no structural concerns. Therefore, we have concluded that the existing structure is in no imminent danger of structural compromise and or collapse…”

The report also states: “It is our opinion that should our recommended minor remedial measures be carried out, the structural integrity of the captioned building will be enhanced. It is further our opinion that the structure could be safely utilized for approximately another 20 to 25 years without any maintenance work.

“During our examinations and assessment, we have discovered that the entire structure is in very good condition. However, evidence reveals that some cosmetic architectural features (painting, etc.) which are non-structural can be carried out with standard construction materials.”

The question then remains, what structural “defects” arose from the time of this report on September 7 and the tabling of the resolution on October 24?

During debate on the resolution last year, Minister of Transport and Local Government Renward Wells said, “…once the government took possession of the building it was discovered that the building was stripped of electrical wiring, plumbing and air conditioning components that were intended to be part and parcel of the new renovations.

“This act of vandalism greatly increased the construction cost and the construction timeline.”

Wells said it was at this time that the government turned its attention to Town Centre Mall, which “offers a wonderful solution to our problem”.

Are we to assume that the “vandalism” took place between September 7 and September 21 when the government requested a proposal from Town Centre Mall to accommodate the post office?

Speaking during debate on the resolution, Wells advised: “On the 21st September, 2018, my ministry initiated and requested and received a proposal from the Town Centre Mall where the principals of the Town Centre Mall agreed to one, construction of the facility in regard to the fixed assets normally associated with electrical…air conditioning, plumbing, drywall and flooring that will be done by the landlord at no cost to the government…secondly, the principals of the Town Centre Mall have agreed that the facility will be ready to receive contractors to work at a moment’s notice and that we would be ready given that we make that decision quickly, that we would be ready to move the post office into the building by [the week just before Christmas].”

Assuming again that the PM’s call to Symonette was indeed in early October when the former minister was in Mexico City, that would mean the government already had a proposal from the mall’s principals in hand and it was only for Symonette to settle with the government on the cost of rent.

Transparency

At the very least, it appears the government has not been fully transparent on this matter.

That is a problem given this government came to office committing to transparency and continues to preach transparency in daily utterances.

We doubt that Symonette, who declared $156 million in assets ahead of the 2017 general election, is desperate for a contract valued at $3.5 million over five years to a company he is only a part-owner of. He acted appropriately in staying away from the Cabinet discussions.

But something is just not adding up as it relates to why the government abandoned the original Gladstone Road plan even after an engineer’s report found no major structural issues, how it negotiated the Town Centre Mall contract and Symonette’s involvement in those negotiations.

The public has every right to ask the obvious questions that have arisen over the matter.

The government should not arrogantly dismiss those concerns. These unforced errors have a sneaky way of adding to the political sandpile of discontent.

While the Minnis administration might remain stable as each grain of doubt and skepticism is piled on, in the end, it would take only one final grain for the entire pile to collapse, leaving those buried under it wondering why they never saw it coming.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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