From all accounts, there is a huge succession problem at the upper levels of our civil service - likely due to poor education and hiring standards over the years. That’s one of the reasons retiring senior officers are often rehired on contract (there are other reasons we won’t go into here).
The poster child for this problem is Parliamentary Commissioner Sherlyn Hall.
He holds a statuary post under the Parliamentary Elections Act. He can be removed from this post if his actions are in breach of that Act, the Public Service Act or General Orders.
The decision to remove him otherwise would be at the discretion of the prime minister, I am told. A case for disciplinary action, outside of actions that are considered criminal offences, would have to be made to the Public Service Commission for this to happen.
Hall was promoted due to longevity, after the retirement of the previous commissioner. But he is clearly not up to the job. Evidence for this lies in his poor handling of the gender equality referendum earlier this year (which included the confusing and delayed release of results) and his obstruction of women trying to register to vote (which led to a protest movement called Too Sexy to Vote).
Hall blamed power outages and fax machine failures for the chaotic referendum result issues, but National Security Minister Bernard Nottage (who is responsible for elections) declined to criticise his performance at that time.
More recently - and despite the fact that voter registration levels are at a historic low - Hall defended his right to turn away any woman who did not meet his arbitrary dress code (men were not mentioned). And this was despite the fact that a voter’s card requires only a head and shoulders shot for identification.
This is what the law says: "to have two identical copies of a photograph taken of him/her by the revising officer, and being of such size as determined by the revising officer, portraying the head and shoulders of the person facing the camera."
In this case, Nottage felt obliged to respond to public outrage, saying no-one had the right to refuse to register a citizen to vote based on arbitrary standards or dress codes. But reports of people being turned away continued unabated, and it often took up to two hours for those who were able to register.
The Parliamentary Commission’s mission includes the following statement: "To afford every eligible Bahamian the opportunity to be registered and to vote in free and fair elections."
I daresay that having an incompetent like Hall in charge of our upcoming electoral process is not a good thing. Brace yourself for a whirlwind.
Every now and then we work ourselves into a frenzy based largely on hearsay and conspiracy theories. Eventually the controversy du jour settles down and is forgotten - until the next time.
There are several of these perennially contentious issues, but the one I want to discuss here today is aragonite.
At the recent ‘We March’ protest downtown, activist John Bostwick argued that our almost inexhaustible aragonite resources could solve our economic problems.
And hackles were raised a few weeks ago when American news reports seemed to suggest that Florida officials were about to steal Bahamian sand for their beaches.
A couple of years ago, union leader John Pinder and others made the preposterous claim that aragonite exports could not only pay off our national debt but give every Bahamian a $50,000 cheque.
“We’re talking about moving from being borrowers to lenders. What China is to the rest of the world, the Bahamas could be to the Caribbean,” Pinder said confidently.
At the same time, lobbyist Kay Smith was touting a $50 million investment in East Grand Bahama to mine aragonite for export and manufacturing. She did not reply to my recent email asking about the current status of that grandiose project.
Meanwhile, the government has said it is investigating the whole aragonite issue with a view to updating all the rules for resource extraction in the Bahamas.
According to the latest report from the International Energy Agency, which tracks these things, renewables and cleaner-burning natural gas are leading in the race to meet energy demand growth.
In other words, a big energy transformation is taking place, spurred by the Paris climate agreement. But whether the Bahamas will benefit from these advances within a reasonable timeframe is questionable.
Government officials often refer to our high vulnerability to climate impacts like rising sea levels and stronger storms. But we see little real leadership in moving towards a clean energy economy.
Environment Minister Ken Dorsett said recently he became involved in politics to facilitate change. “And over the last four-and-a-half years we have seen evidence of the foundational work for that change, (including) energy sector reform.”
In support, he pointed to a national energy policy that was developed over successive administrations. It sets a goal of 30 per cent renewable energy use by 2030.
The policy envisions the Bahamas as a “world leader in sustainable energy”. And to its credit, the government did pass a new Electricity Act, which specifically provides for renewable energy generation and grid inter-connection.
One thing’s for certain - there has been no shortage of analysis from every quarter on why Donald Trump won the US presidential election.
For Breitbart News - the provocateur website run by Trump’s right-wing strategist Steve Bannon - it was a foregone conclusion.
Their candidate (whom they refer to as ’Daddy’) promised to disrupt establishment politics and upend the sclerotic global system that America and its allies have built up over the past 70 years.
“We’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” Bannon said in a recent interview. "The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan…It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution - conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
Trump’s anti-globalist headline policies during the campaign focused on a border wall, radical immigration and trade restrictions, reneging on international treaties, and reversing whatever progress has been made on climate and environmental issues.
But before we get into that, let’s look at the numbers. At the time of writing, Hillary Clinton led Trump by well over a million votes - 48 to 47 per cent - but Trump won in the electoral college.
A firestorm erupted last week over leaked reports that the Christie administration was in talks to hand over farming and fishing rights to the Chinese.
Despite the fact that a detailed official report was circulating, and the fact that a cabinet minister had authorised the talks, government spin doctors went into an immediate frenzy.
Alfred Gray - the minister at the centre of the storm - first claimed the reports were “utterly false” and then dismissed them as political gamesmanship.
Other spokesmen castigated critics for being anti-Chinese and pointed out that it was former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham who had initiated relations with the Peoples Republic in the 1990s.
It is also true that China signed a Memorandum of Understanding on agricultural cooperation with Gray’s predecessor under the last Ingraham administration - Larry Cartwright.
A team of Chinese experts toured Abaco back then, and government politicians promoted investments in food production and processing on 5,000 acres of Crown land. There was also talk of mariculture projects - but nothing came to pass
Nevertheless, in 2013 the Chinese ambassador noted that his nation was “very keen” on investing in The Bahamas, especially in the areas of renewable energy, agricultural production and fisheries.
Probably the biggest difference between the Ingraham initiative and the current proposal is that, today, Bahamians know the government is politically desperate to restart the Chinese-owned and -controlled Baha Mar project.
And since this government conducts most of the people’s business in secret, there is no way to know what quid is being offered for which quo. We have to assume that an exchange is taking place, as the Chinese are not here for charitable purposes.
Hurricane Matthew played no favourites here, and neither has Bahamas Power & Light (BPL).
From the flats of South Beach, yea unto the peak of Mount Fitzwilliam, darkness has reigned; no Almighty said “let there be light.”
On Friday (Oct 21) Government House ballroom was unlit. The handsome invites for the gala Celebrating Women International had to be scrapped, although dispatched by the Governor-General, Dame Marguerite Pindling.
“Cross” might be a polite word for the eminent lady’s reaction. Even Queen Elizabeth II would have hard words for her Prime Minister if Buckingham Palace went dark for two weeks.
Unfortunately, the blame lies directly on Dame Marguerite’s own government, inherited directly from her charismatic late husband Sir Lynden. Since her ministers took office in May 2012, we can easily review their record of abject failure in leading us to cheap, reliable electric power—a principal plank in their Charter for Governance election platform.
In 2013, the Prime Minister delivered a lengthy, grandiose statement of how energy supply would be reformed, as developed by his chosen National Energy Task Force. Amid the flow of eloquent generalities, and the standard platitudes about renewable energy (meeting 30% of our total needs by 2030) several specific points can be found about reorganising the Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC).
Recognizing that “fundamental realignment would be required”, BEC would be divided into two companies, one for transmission and distribution and another for generation. Although government would retain a stake, other parties would be promptly invited to bid by sending out RFPs (requests for proposals), and initial public offerings (IPOs) would be launched locally. With KPMG Advisory Service on board as principal consultant, all would be wrapped up by 2013 year-end.
As usual with Mr. Christie’s more ebullient announcements, his promises have proved illusory. There is still no government programme for wide generation by solar, wind or waste resources, and the projected reorganization of BEC has been radically revised and down-sized.
By late 2013, it was obvious that any acceptable RFPs were slow in coming, and questions to Minister of Works Philip Davis were being met with evasive answers that the matter was still “under study”. Finally, in early 2014 Minister Davis acknowledged that “we may fall back on doing it ourselves...BEC may remain unified and not split up”, reversing all the earlier analysis and advice by KPMG and a technical advisory firm.
For the remainder of 2014, there was no further hard news. Then in May 2015, government announced firmly that it would keep 100% ownership of BEC and, for a ”transitional” fee of $900,000, simply grant “management” to Power Secure International (PS), an American company recommended by the US Secretary of Commerce, no less.
That was an unusual choice, since PS, although publicly listed on the New York Stock Exchange, was not itself an electric utility but a provider of specialty services to major utility companies.
Although PS was a successful, entrepreneurial firm founded by its CEO Sidney Hinton, it took until early February 2016 for the company to sign a five-year management service agreement with government, providing that PS could earn as much as $5 million annually for five years.
Then, within three weeks, to Mr. Christie’s evident surprise, PS announced that it had been bought by US utility giant, The Southern Company, (formerly the controlling shareholder of Freeport Power) for some $431 million, giving a nice profit to its shareholders including Mr. Hinton, who clearlyhad been negotiating this major deal during all the months he had been dickering with our government about BEC.
Meanwhile, government had incorporated a new company named Bahamas Power and Light, wholly owned by BEC and created (here I quote) “to allow BEC to split off its generation, transmission and distribution duties and prepare for ring-fencing the utility’s $450 million-plus legacy debt.”
In other words, BPL would become the operator of all aspects of our electric power business leaving BEC as a corporate shell with nothing but debt. PS (now a Southern Co. subsidiary) would actually manage BPL and install its senior executives under a Bahamian board of directors headed by banker Nathaniel Beneby.
The first choice of managing director was a gentleman who resigned “for personal reasons” within three weeks. PS hid their embarrassment by quickly finding a replacement, which they did by going outside their ranks and recruiting Pamela Hill from her senior position with a major US company. She was officially named CEO of BPL effective May 2 this year.
I hope Ms. Hill is a lady of stamina, as she has suffered a rocky road ever since her appointment. Beginning at her Chamber of Commerce breakfast introduction, she has been steadily heckled by the feisty Leslie Miller (a former BEC chairman), and union leaders, among others.
When she made rational proposals to increase rates for electricity consumers, she was immediately shot down by government, which feared political consequences. Then she had to share the bIame for government’s failure to build foundations for the installation of new rental generators. And in June she had to warn of continuing outages during summer months, raising the ire of consumers.
This month’s descent of hurricane Matthew was her personal “perfect storm”, as public wrath rose to new heights about “the worst hurricane response in our history”. In fact, Ms Hill's response seems exemplary. Her contact with Southern Co. enabled the speedy arrival of a flotilla of bucket trucks, with drivers and repair equipment, which would still be tangled in red-tape if handled by Mr. Davis’ Ministry of Public Works.
The catastrophic damage along our south coast resulted from a geographical peculiarity combined with uncontrolled property development, poor drainage systems, and unenforced building codes - issues over which she has no control.
The hurricane should not be used to obscure the fundamental failings of our energy regime, which will continue even in the sunniest weather. The real difficulty lies in financial management. As Ms.Hill herself has stated, BPL is short of current operating funds to improve service and to correct the shoddy maintenance that government, through BEC, has allowed to fester for many years.
These problems are not resolved by simply slotting in the new company. BPL. underneath BEC. It’s hard to understand—I certainly cannot—the incestuous relationship between these two companies.
If BPL is now the operating entity, why do consumers still get their bills headed by the BEC logo and turn to the BEC internet website to get information about billing, plus a lot of out-of date material about a previous board of directors?
Googling BPL, one finds only a facebook page with a bold pink announcement that the company “Supports Breast Cancer” (sic) - nothing else except an address and telephone number. When will BPL be able to produce its own corporate facts and financial statements, the latest one from BEC covering the year 2010?
Any improvement in service is hamstrung by BEC’s legacy debt of at least $450 million, which certainly cannot be funded by BPL from its own operations. Early this year government authorized a BEC $600 million “Rate Reduction Bond”, but current reports show little success to date in placing these securities, and the technical default of an outstanding $100 million BEC bond was recently announced.
Pamela Hill should be given full latitude for squeezing operating efficiencies into profit for BPL and dividends up to BEC, but it’s hard to see her making substantive improvements and reducing rates in the face of that overhanging debt.
Regrettably, both washed-out South Beach residents and the Government House ballroom may have to endure more nights in the dark.