After losing former opposition member Alvera Maduro-Caines to the Virgin Islands Party and seeing the resignation of Recovery and Development Agency CEO Paul Bayly this month, opposition members acknowledged last week that recent days had been “eventful.”
But they nevertheless shared an ambitious agenda for tackling infrastructure issues and pushing for government accountability with steps including holding their first Public Accounts Committee meeting next week. During a press conference last Thursday at the House of Assembly offices, Opposition Leader Marlon Penn quickly addressed news of Ms. Maduro-Caines’ departure, which left the opposition with four members. He and other members said they thought Ms. Maduro-Caines should have offered advance notice, but they wished the best for her in the new position and were ready to move on.
The press conference was the second since the opposition announced plans last November to hold one every month.
“In our first meeting, we outlined some key areas of concern for us,” Mr. Penn said, adding that many of them revolved around recovery efforts. “We now have a situation where … the head of the RDA, Mr. Paul Bayly, has since resigned from the RDA. The RDA is charged with the majority of the work as it relates to the recovery of the territory.”
As recent heavy rainstorms continue to erode roads still in need of substantive repairs from Irma, Mr. Penn (R-D8) said it’s imperative to tackle long-awaited infrastructure projects.
He added that he couldn’t say he was surprised by Mr. Bayly’s resignation given that he didn’t have the funding to execute his mandated agenda.
He also expressed disappointment that a loan guarantee offered by the United Kingdom, which would allow the territory to borrow £300 million at low interest rates to fund recovery projects, hasn’t yet been obtained.
“We have yet to finalise that loan guarantee,” he said. “We are concerned with the pace of the recovery of this territory.”
Mr. Penn said not having the details of the loan guarantee confirmed leaves the VI in a “very uncertain place.”
“As the opposition, we are intended to dig deeper as it relates to the issue of recovery, and hold the government to account,” he said.
Asked if a local expert should be the RDA CEO, opposition member Melvin Turnbull (R- D2) said the position hadn’t been geared toward Virgin Islanders in previous job postings, and he believed that should change.
“If we’re going to build back this Virgin Islands just as it was done 50 or 60 years ago by our forefathers — it was done by us, by our people, through prayers and belief in God and working hand in hand — if we’re going to build back this Virgin Islands, why not build it back with our own people?” Mr. Turnbull asked.
Fellow opposition member Julian Fraser (R-D3) expressed scepticism that a Virgin Islander would be selected for the position given that it wasn’t a priority when forming the RDA. Mr. Penn also said regardless of who eventually fills the role, the VI needs to pick up the pace on recovery projects.
The legislators also confirmed that after nearly a year of delay, they would hold the first meeting of the opposition-led Public Accounts Committee next week. Mr. Turnbull said the delay was due to disagreement with the government about who would serve on the committee, headed by Mr. Penn.
“It took a year for the PAC to be formed only because the government didn’t want to agree on how many members could sit on it because they only had one member that could sit on it who was not a minister or junior minister,” Mr. Turnbull said. “We got that rectified.”
The oversight body will work to answer questions about how government funding is being used. Mr. Penn said the committee plans to review audits from the past 16 years and call on both public officials and private citizens to account for dollars spent.
“It is our intent to be extremely active,” he said, adding that the group will meet on a weekly basis and provide regular reports.
He said the committee wants to ensure “some accountability in the way government’s money is spent, the way projects are executed.”
Mr. Turnbull said he hopes the PAC’s voice will send a clear message amid the “fast talk” in today’s politics.
“We are steadfast in our views that we will not only hold our government accountable in what they say, but now the actions of the PAC will be that driving force to ensure that we are doing the things that we have a responsibility to do,” Mr. Turnbull said.
The PAC, he added, also plans to investigate the Virgin Islands Festivals and Fairs Committee’s budget.
“Festival over the years has always been a red flag, in particular this year,” he said. “Over $2 million was spent on Festival, and we have yet to have a proper accounting of how the money was spent.”
The festival committee plans events including the August Emancipation Festival and the Virgin Gorda Easter Festival.
Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said during a July 31 House of Assembly meeting that comprehensive financial information dating back to 2016 wasn’t available because past record keeping wasn’t up to “acceptable standards.” He also promised that a more detailed breakdown of 2019 festival spending would be included in the report on that year’s activities, which hasn’t been released to the public yet.
Mr. Penn said the opposition is also concerned with larger influences on the VI’s economy, especially knowing that 2019 revenue from the financial services sector dropped by 27 percent, about $30 million, compared to the previous year. He was also worried about the continued blacklisting of the territory by France and “what implications that might have for us as a territory.”
“We have yet to see a plan to deal with the economic issue of substance,” Mr. Penn said. “We need to sit down as a group and devise a plan to move this territory forward as it relates to industry, and overall the … economy.”
Responding to questions about the government’s proposal to establish a medical marijuana industry and testing laboratory on Tortola, Mr. Fraser said a constituent had already reached out to him asking how to get involved in farming the drug.
The project would involve teaching at least 40 VI residents how to grow the plant on 40 acres of land in Paraquita Bay, according to the premier. However, opposition members stressed the need for an overarching plan to promote agriculture in the VI and to decriminalise the drug before taking on the project.
“I can tell you right now that it is popular,” Mr. Fraser said. “It’s something that’s catchy right now. I think Jamaica is the first Caribbean country that made a pitch for it. Now I hear the US Virgin Islands is making a pitch for it. There has been talk about it here in the territory before this government came in. I was surprised at the vigour with which they took it on. But like with everything else in the programmes that the government are announcing, the background and the details don’t filter down to the opposition.”
Mr. Fraser said it sounds good to talk of the potential multimillion-dollar windfall promised in the emerging industry, the details aren’t in place yet for how it would be implemented. But he said the opposition is interested in learning more.
‘Smoke and mirrors’
Mr. Penn then shared a personal anecdote about one senior constituent’s concern for entering an increasingly competitive medicinal market before prioritising food-based agriculture.
“What bothers me is that you hear from the farmers, and you hear from the persons in the community again that this is the opportunity to rebuild this territory,” Mr. Penn added. “When we continue to look for the quick fixes, and we look at the ‘revenue’ that they continue to portray, it’s again smoke and mirrors.”
Mr. Penn expressed doubt that the VI would be able to get a significant piece of the pie amid the global market for medicinal marijuana.
Mr. Turnbull also pointed out the potential difficulty in banking for the industry while marijuana is still illegal in the territory.
“We’re just blurting out these things without details, and then the whole fanfare happens, and then by the time it comes down, nothing happens,” Mr. Penn said as he stressed the need for positive development of the territory’s agriculture and fisheries industries. “But I hope we don’t continue to buy into all the pomp and circumstance.”
Mr. Fahie said last Thursday in a statement that marijuana would be legalised before government enters into any contract or agreement with a company in respect to the VI’s medicinal cannabis industry.
His previous public statements, he added, “confirm that the government of the Virgin Islands is currently at the stage of preparing to draft the necessary legislation” to present to the Cabinet, stakeholders and eventually the House of Assembly.
The passage of such legislation, he said, would also “involve a period of public education.”
While speaking about the importance of maintaining a critical eye in government affairs, Mr. Penn also expressed disappointment about bullying in VI politics.
“We are deeply concerned that after the November press conference where we raised this issue … that it’s more prevalent now than before,” he said. “Persons are afraid to speak up. Persons are afraid to speak against anything that the government is doing from fear of victimisation.”
Mr. Penn also alleged that board members in certain government bodies have been getting too involved in the day-to-day operations of boards rather than setting directives. He did not specify which boards in particular concerned him.
As an elected member of the House of Assembly and opposition, Mr. Penn said he feels it is important to speak on behalf of those who feel voiceless.
“There needs to be recourse when you are being disenfranchised, when you are being pushed aside by your government or your administration,” Mr. Penn said as he reiterated the PAC’s commitment to looking out for the public’s interests. “It should not go unchallenged.”
He later elaborated that he had been the target of intimidation tactics, and promised to share further details at a later date.