Last year, the Commission of Inquiry blasted then-Premier Andrew Fahie for overstepping his authority and unlawfully revoking the membership of the Climate Change Trust Fund Board before the end of members’ appointed tenure. The COI also recommended extensive reforms designed to prevent such actions at any boards in the territory.
But now, the former head of another statutory body is claiming that he was removed in a very similar manner this month. Moleto Smith Jr. — who in July 2021 was appointed chairman of the BVI Health Services Authority for a three-year period — told the Beacon that he learned of his termination early this month when he read a news report about the pending appointment of Ron Potter.
Shortly thereafter, he said, he received a letter from Health and Social Development Minister Marlon Penn explaining that Cabinet had decided to terminate his appointment “effective immediately.” The letter, which is dated March 8, continues, “This decision was reached after careful consideration of your performance and conduct as board chair, which have fallen short of the expectations for this role.”
Though the letter goes on to thank Mr. Smith for his service, it doesn’t provide further details about why he was removed.
Mr. Smith, however, noted that the reason provided by Mr. Penn is not among the list of reasons for which the minister is authorised to remove a board member under the BVI Health Services Authority Act 2004. Those reasons include missing meetings; bankruptcy; being of unsound mind; being convicted of an indictable offence; being “unable or unfit” to discharge board functions; or breaching any condition of appointment.
Mr. Smith also said that none of those reasons apply to him.
“While I’m not doing any kind of public challenge around what happened, I think it is in violation of the law,” he said. “I do believe it is rooted in something other than what is statutorily provided under the act. And the documentation that would support any of that action, I feel, is non-existent.”
‘Not crawling back’
Mr. Smith also stood by his record at the board, claiming that he and other members had met about 70 times since he took up the post and worked very hard under challenging circumstances.
“I’m not crawling back for a position: I just want to make that clear,” he added. “But I think we owe it to ourselves and this community to respect the independence of statutory boards pursuant to the law, and to respect the letter, spirit and intent of the law — but also exercise our actions based on professionalism and professional courtesy.”
The COI report released last April made similar points.
“In respect of all statutory boards, the independence from executive government that has been ascribed by the legislature is constitutionally vital,” COI Commissioner Gary Hickinbottom wrote. “As I have described, in the BVI, the evidence is overwhelming that that independence has been severely — and, at times, cynically and with apparent disdain — eroded. … In my view, it is imperative that that interference ceases, and steps are taken to protect statutory boards as important, autonomous arms of government.”
The 2021 appointment of Mr. Smith, a Virgin Islands belonger who lives in the United States VI, was not without controversy. At the time, then-Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone argued that Mr. Smith was best suited for the task of guiding the territory’s health care services through the pandemic. But others questioned the need to appoint a USVI resident.
This month, however, House of Assembly members were unanimous in voting in Mr. Smith’s replacement. During a March 10 HOA meeting held two days after Mr. Smith was terminated, Mr. Penn moved to appoint Mr. Potter as chairman of the BVIHSA Board.
HOA members then unanimously agreed to appoint Mr. Potter for a period of three years effective March 15.
During the HOA meeting, legislators did not say why Mr. Smith was removed early, but they lauded Mr. Potter.
Mr. Penn, for instance, said he was “honoured” to present Mr. Potter as a candidate at “this critical point” due to his “welcomed experience.”
He also spoke briefly about the difficulties the organisation has faced during the pandemic and about plans to improve health care in the territory with Mr. Potter serving an integral role in the process.
“Having worked in accounting and organisational leadership for over 30 years, his expertise and proven leadership make him the ideal candidate for this position,” Mr. Penn said.
As the chairman, Mr. Potter will be responsible for developing and implementing a strategic vision for the body; setting and communicating clear objectives; building key relationships with internal and external stakeholders; ensuring that the organisation operates in compliance with all standards; presenting timely reports and audits in accordance with the BVIHSA Act 2004; recruiting senior level managers; and more, Mr. Penn said.
The minister added that he has full confidence in Mr. Potter to carry out his duties. The selection process involved a comprehensive review of all applications, Mr. Penn said.
He didn’t say how many applications were received, but he noted that shortlisted candidates were interviewed by a panel.
“In the course of this recruitment and vetting process, it was agreed that Mr. Ron Potter possessed the attributes required for this leadership role given his broad and nuanced perspectives for the complex issues involved in governing a statutory body,” Mr. Penn said. “He displayed knowledge of the principles, practices and theories of governance, as well as an ability to apply this knowledge to practical situations.”
Previous board experience
Mr. Potter served as chairman of the board of directors for the National Bank of the Virgin Islands from 1999 to 2007; a member of the BVIHSA board from 2011 to 2013; and chairman of the board of directors of the BVI Electricity Corporation from 2013 to 2019, according to the minister.
Under his direction at the BVIEC, three new generators were installed at the power plant in Pockwood Pond, upgrading the territory’s power generation and supply network, Mr. Pennsaid.
Both Opposition Leader Julian Fraser (R-D3) and territorial at-large member Vincent Wheatley (R-D9) spoke in favour of the motion, taking the opportunity to express their concerns about the territory’s healthcare services.
Mr. Fraser said he would like to see the new management “fix the ills of the hospital.”
“I have no reservations about Mr. Potter’s competence,” he said. “But you have to tell us how you’re going to equip him. You can’t put him in that place to fail.”
Mr. Wheatley made similar comments.
“The challenges in the healthcare system in this territory are phenomenal,” he said. “The new chairman has his work cut outfor him.”
Messrs. Penn and Potter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.