The Premier’s Office — which currently oversees 11 statutory bodies — chose board members through an informal process that typically didn’t employ vacancy announcements, interviews, background checks, or conflict-of-interest reviews, according to testimony over the past week in the Commission of Inquiry.
While questioning Premier Andrew Fahie on Tuesday and his Permanent Secretary Dr. Carolyn O’Neal-Morton last Thursday, Commissioner Gary Hickinbot- tom and COI Counsel Bilal Rawat asked for details about the boards that fall under the premier’s portfolio.
When discussing board after board, both the premier and Dr. O’Neal-Morton admitted that certain practices aren’t up to standard — but they said that the government is working on correcting them.
The commission questioned Mr. Fahie about decisions his government has taken since coming to power in February 2019, including enacting a “policy” of replacing entire boards with each new administration.
While giving the premier a chance to respond to potential criticisms, the COI suggested that government may have failed to properly assess whether ousting entire boards would raise legal issues; whether the move was best practice; and whether it was in the interest of the people.
The premier, though, said the government relied on the advice of the attorney general before adopting the policy, which he said was designed to bring a “reinvigoration” of statutory boards.
Shortly after taking office, he recounted, his government called a meeting of all the boards. From that meeting, he recognised that board members were not on the same page and that they each “wanted different things.” Mr. Fahie also said boards were duplicating efforts.
His government, he said, decided that all statutory boards should have members committed to the sitting government’s mandate and have youth representation.
He also described the policy as a way to boost efficiency and ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent more effectively.
“One can see that the way forward was in the public interest and not in the political party’s interest,” he said. “We tried to build more towards the institutions so it will last and stand the test of time.”
When the legality of the policy was discussed in Cabinet, Mr. Fahie said the attorney general didn’t give clear advice to the government. He added that if the Cabinet had been told that the policy was unconstitutional, members wouldn’t have taken it forward.
Mr. Rawat also questioned Mr. Fahie about the “informal” process of appointing board members to the 11 statutory boards under the Premier’s Office.
The premier said the practice has been going on for a long time in the territory, but that the government is aware that changes are needed.
“We’re recognising that you can’t just ask someone to serve on a board; you have to have the criteria written down and approved criterias,” he said. “So that is the paradigm shift that government is now making.”
As part of that change, he added, his office is working to reform the process of selecting board members, including advertising vacancies at some boards and scheduling formal interviews with applicants.
Conflicts of interest
Mr. Rawat also said the COI had seen no evidence that proper checks for conflicts of interest were carried out before appointing board members who were also family members.
The premier agreed with the statement, but said that because of the small size of the territory, it has historically been accepted that any conflicts of interests would be apparent without investigations.
“This has been a longstanding practice of the 71-year history of the territory since we’ve had Legislative Council,” he said.
While there is no legislation requiring ministers to identify conflicts of interest before appointing board members, Mr. Fahie agreed that such a requirement would improve governance.
“It’s needed now that some of these things have come into question and the country is evolving more and more,” he said. “Those are the areas we’re going toward.”
Mr. Fahie added that relevant familial relationships need to be clearly defined since many people are related within the small territory.
Last Thursday, the COI asked similar questions of Dr. O’Neal-Morton, a former permanent secretary for the Ministry of Education and Culture who came out of retirement to take up the Premier’s Office post in March 2020.
Dr. O’Neal-Morton, who supplied the COI with affidavits for all the boards under the office, agreed that the longstanding process of appointing board members has been “informal.” But, like the premier, she said that is changing.
“We have evolved the process to a more formal one since my entry into the ministry,” she said.
Mr. Rawat then explained what the COI has learned so far about the appointment of statutory board members under the Ministry of Health and Social Development and the Ministry of Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration.
He said the “informal” appointment process for those boards typically includes recommendations made by ministers, permanent secretaries or other officials to the appropriate minister. If the candidates agree to serve on the board, they are asked for their resumes, according to recent testimony.
The minister ultimately decides who is chosen, and that appointment then gets sent to the Cabinet for approval, according to the counsel.
“What we were also told is that … the process doesn’t involve advertising; it doesn’t involve interviewing; it doesn’t involve obtaining references,” Mr. Rawat added. “The only document that is obtained is a CV or the resume.”
Dr. O’Neal-Morton agreed that the selection process has been similar under the Premier’s Office.
She added that to determine someone’s good character, which is a requirement for appointment to any statutory board, an internal panel typically reviews resumes and a candidate’s presence in the community.
“It’s a small community, so you basically know most of the persons who are being considered or whose names are brought to the table,” she added.
Typically, no formal check is made to ensure the applicants don’t have a criminal background, she admitted.
But like the premier, she also said the longstanding application process is being reformed, and she noted that an advertisement and interview process was recently adopted as a policy decision.
Though she said no formal policy document exists to set those measures in stone, Sir Gary pointed out that Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley announced the policy change on June 1 while acting as premier.
After that, Sir Gary noted, advertisement for vacancies in five statutory boards under the Premier’s Office were published.
Dr. O’Neal-Morton said she headed a panel that reviewed the applications received following the advertisements.
“We looked at the CVs and we looked at applications. So we went through them with a fine-toothed comb,” she explained. “We then invited each person who applied for an interview.”
She added last Thursday that the ministry’s first interview to select a board member had been scheduled to occur that same day.
Mr. Rawat also provided some background information about the appointments of specific boards before asking Dr. O’Neal-Morton more questions.
Cabinet decided in April 2019 to revoke the appointments of BVIEC board members, according to the counsel.
The BVIEC was moved under the premier’s portfolio in September 2019, but new board members weren’t appointed until November 2019, Mr. Rawat said, adding that these board members were not interviewed.
“It’s true that there is no record of an interview, but one reason for that is there was no interview,” he said. “So it’s not simply that there are no records, which, of course, is a governance issue, but these steps weren’t taken because the informal process did not include these steps.”
In response, Dr. O’Neal-Morton conceded that efforts weren’t made in a way that would lead to “finding the most suitable and qualified candidate” for most of the BVIEC board members, in part because vacancies were not advertised.
Mr. Rawat also noted similar shake-ups at other statutory boards that fall under the Premier’s Office.
Cabinet revoked the membership of the BVI Tourist Board in March 2019 and appointed a new board in July 2019, which took office the following month, according to Mr. Rawat.
In the same timeframe, the BVIPA board gained all new members.
In April 2019, appointed members of the BVIAA board resigned and Cabinet appointed a new board the following month, Mr. Rawat said.
Conflicts of interests
Dr. O’Neal-Morton also was asked whether potential conflicts of interest were considered before choosing candidates for any statutory board.
Some examples may be family relationships within the board or ministry, or employer/employee relationships, Mr. Rawat said.
She said she could not recall taking such factors into consideration prior to appointments to the boards, nor could she recall if those factors were brought up during informal interviews.
She said some boards, including the TRC, require members to sign a written declaration that includes such information.
In concluding remarks last Thursday, Mr. Rawat asked Dr. O’Neal-Morton once more how she would characterise the appointment process for statutory boards.
“I think if I were to put it all over to you again, I think we would end up in the same place, wouldn’t we?” he asked. “I think you at least are prepared to accept that the informal processes is flawed.”
Dr. O’Neal-Morton replied, “Well, we’ve changed it, so that is a part of accepting that it is flawed because we’ve changed it and we’re moving on to a more formal process.”