A glaring example of local government’s clash with central government has emerged in picturesque Exuma where the majority of the members of the Road Traffic Board have resigned, reportedly claiming they feel disrespected by decisions made by Nassau-based road traffic controller Bradley Sands in the award of taxi franchises.
Minutes of a September 5, 2019 meeting of the board (an arm of local government) show that Fernon Clarke, officer-in-charge of the Road Traffic Department, reported that 16 taxi franchises were added to the taxi quota.
Clarke informed that they were approved by Sands.
Earnald Bain, a board member, asked who along with the controller made the decision, as he could not recall the board making any recommendation regarding taxi franchises for final approval.
He asked the board chairman, Lyndon Curtis, if he was aware of the information, but the chairman advised that at no time did he have any consultation with the controller and to his knowledge, the controller acted outside of the board on his own, without consultation with the board, but rather with individuals not appointed to the board.
The minutes add: “The chairman also stated that, although the [Road Traffic] Act rests power in the controller, to his knowledge, it destroys morale and [the] true spirit of the act for the controller to do so without consultation with the Road Traffic Board.”
Another board member, Pedro Rolle, president of the Exuma Chamber of Commerce, questioned the purpose of the board when an individual can go directly to the controller for approval.
The chairman stated that the decision of the controller directly opposes the direction the board had agreed to pursue.
The minutes add, “The decision was that there would be a cleanup exercise of delinquent franchises. The granting of franchises would first be to those drivers in the system who are presently using plates owned by others.”
Nine names of such individuals were listed in the minutes.
“The others to be considered would be younger persons who have prepared to make a consistent contribution to the industry as presently the average age of franchise holders is old, and early in the evening most of the taxi drivers are home,” according to the board’s minutes.
“…On a motion led by member Pedro Rolle and seconded by member Vernice Forbes it was agreed that the aforementioned applicants be granted a public scheduled franchise.”
A little over a month later, on October 10, the board again addressed the issue at a meeting.
With regards to the granting of franchises by the controller, Rolle asked whether a letter was addressed to Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis and Minister of Transport and Local Government Renward Wells.
Exuma Administrator Ivan Ferguson informed that letters were sent to the minister, the permanent secretary and the controller but there was some delay, according to the minutes.
The chairman, Curtis, informed that after a letter was sent regarding the road traffic controller, according to the road traffic reports, more taxi and self drives were being issued.
The minutes note that one of the members stated that the controller is determined about his actions, which is an insult to the board and he urged that the board take a stand.
The minutes add: “Member Earnald Bain noted that since the last road traffic meeting, there has been an addition to the taxi quota, also the granting of new self drive plates without any consultation with the board. He recommended that if this is the way forward for franchises to be approved, the board should resign.
“Administrator noted that he spoke to the chairman and advised that the board make an appointment to see the minister and the permanent secretary about the matter. Chairman Curtis informed that he communicated with both the prime minister and the minister and there was no reply.”
Another member questioned the purpose of the board when the controller grants franchises without any input from the board.
The chairman asked Clarke whether letters were sent to the road traffic office for self drive franchises to which he responded in the affirmative, according to the minutes.
It adds, administrator Ferguson then advised that three members make an appointment with the minister for further clarification and ultimate resolution.
Rolle recommended that three members meet with the minister and the permanent secretary relative to the concerns.
While a motion was passed approving this, National Review understands that the meeting never happened.
Sands said the protocol was not for him to meet with members of the Road Traffic Board of local government in Exuma.
The proper protocol, he said, is for the administrator to contact the director of local government requesting a meeting.
Sands said he would have been “out of line” had he met directly with the board and insisted “they don’t know their role”.
“I don’t have the authority to meet with them,” the controller said.
He noted that the Road Traffic Act empowers him as controller to issue taxi franchises.
According to Sands, some members of the board have acted outside of their authority.
He said some people on Exuma bought vehicles with the expectation that they would get franchises “based on what the board communicated to them”.
“What I have learnt is they have promised people things even before the moratorium [on franchises] was lifted,” said Sands, a former veteran police officer, who was previously the officer in charge of Exuma.
Sands pointed out he had 35 years’ service on the Royal Bahamas Police Force, 15 of those years in the Family Islands, so he has an understanding of Family Island culture and politics.
He stressed that he is a stickler for the rule of law and proper protocol.
Sands said he is not in the business of granting franchises willy nilly.
“Everybody thinks they have a right to a plate,” he told National Review.
Asked whether he sees the wisdom in considering recommendations of local government boards on such matters, the controller said that his representative on the Exuma Board is Clarke, and the proper procedures were followed.
Speaking to a Nassau Guardian reporter on Monday, Minister Wells noted: “At the end of the day, the Road Traffic Act…gives the controller of road traffic, only the controller of road traffic, the authority to assign franchise plates, meaning taxis, livery, tour, omni bus plates.
“I believe that the board in Exuma had some issues with the controller making decisions on the issuance of taxi plates to certain individuals in Exuma.
“The Cabinet of The Bahamas lifted the moratorium, as you know, first in the Family Islands and then in New Providence, so the government has the opportunity to move forward with regard to taxis to make those requisite decisions.
“In regards to self drive plates, rental cars, the board in Exuma, according to the Road Traffic Act, is tasked to be able to make decisions in that regard for self drive plates, and so I think there was a disagreement on the taxi plate issue, but the law is quite clear.”
In their minutes, however, the board claimed it had no role in the issuance of self drive plates either.
At the October 10 meeting, one board member suggested the board should revoke the SD franchises, but the island administrator advised that “the board has no authority to revoke franchises issued by the controller”.
The local government councils and boards are mandated, like everyone else — the minister, controller, etc. — to follow the law.
It is unfortunate, however, that the powers that be in Nassau would not give the board the courtesy of hearing its concerns.
Asked on Monday whether he received the board’s request for a meeting, Wells was evasive, saying, “Whether the board requests a meeting or not is immaterial. The fact of the matter is we would have spoken on the issue of the law.”
It is easy to see why board members would feel frustrated and disrespected in the matter.
At the Exuma Business Outlook last year, Pedro Rolle, the chamber president, also addressed the issue.
“Imagine this scenario,” he stated. “The local Road Traffic Board has oversight of the receipt of applications, review and recommendations of persons wishing to have licenses for taxis, SDs, public buses, etc.
“In Exuma, there are persons on the waiting list for these franchises for years. Imagine how insulting it would be if someone bypassed the local board, went directly to the road traffic controller, obtained a number of SD plates — and the local board never receives an application.”
Rolle added, “The bottom line is, the unwillingness of central government to allow for decisions to be made locally on matters of local concern will continue to prevent the transformation of Exuma.”
The chamber president said local decision making allows Exuma to set its priorities based on local realities and not on the political agenda of Nassau.
“Local [stakeholders] would have the only voice in determining who is awarded franchises for taxi, SD, buses, tour boats, etc., because we know who’s deserving,” he said.
Rolle said the current system is “insulting and degrading”.
“It makes beggars and schemers out of proud and honorable citizens when every little bit of infrastructure development required for Exuma, we must reach out to Nassau, with our hands out, begging for that which is ours; begging for money; begging for even the right to make decisions impacting our well being.”
In its report, which we reported on extensively in this space last week, the Advisory Committee on the introduction of local government to New Providence noted: “Our findings during this research and consultative period also suggest that there be an overhaul of the Family Island local government system that was birthed in 1996 (but remains in an infantile state).”
Issues, like the one we highlighted from Exuma, speak directly to the need for stronger local government in the islands.