The House of Assembly voted last Thursday to exempt Neville Smith from vacating his seat as at-large representative despite his position as director of Frontline Systems, which is renting sound equipment to the Virgin Islands Festivals and Fairs Committee this month.

The vote came after a lengthy debate over government transparency.

“This has been done over the years that I’ve been in this honourable House of Assembly,” said Premier Andrew Fahie. “It is nothing new, and it is not illegal.”

He added the government plans to implement an open register of all of the interests of members of the House.

Opposition member Mark Vanterpool (R-D4) spoke for nearly an hour, requesting specific details about the contracts like the amount being awarded, when they were negotiated, and if payments had already been made.

“We’re exempting too many times contracts which need to go to bid from going to bid,” he said.

“It’s not transparency. It’s not fair. It doesn’t fit in the Protocols for Effective Financial Management.”

Mr. Vanterpool’s remarks launched a lengthy back and forth between the ruling Virgin Islands Party and the opposition over transparency and whether the constitutional guidelines for central government contracts apply to statutory bodies.

Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley pointed out that the motion was not to determine whether or not Mr. Smith’s company should have been awarded the contract, but to vote on a resolution as to whether or not he should be exempted from vacating his seat for doing business with government.

He went on to say that he would provide a detailed financial report to the HOA for every Festival.

Past exemptions

Dr. Wheatley pointed out that similar exemptions have been made for former Premier Dr. Orlando Smith, Opposition Leader Marlon Penn, Dr. Kedrick Pickering, Dr. Vincent Scatliffe and Vernon Malone.

“It is out of an abundance of caution that Honourable Smith is being subjected to this motion,” he added. “Because the Festivals and Fairs Committee is not central government. They are separate legal entities.”

The motion to exempt Mr. Smith from vacating his seat eventually passed after about two and a half hours, with six voting in favour.

Mr. Vanterpool was the only member who voted against it. The other opposition members in attendance abstained from voting; Mr. Smith was unable to vote; and Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer and opposition member Alvera Maduro-Caines (R-D6) were absent during the voting process.

‘Healthy debate’

Mr. Fahie called the discourse a “healthy debate” and said that Dr. Wheatley would bring a full statement on the matter to the next HOA sitting so that the issue can be “properly ventilated.”

He then removed an item from the order paper moving for Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone to be exempted from vacating his seat because of his position as director of Caribbean Basin Enterprises, which is contracted by government for various “environmental and industrial products” and “project management and construction works.”

He said that the removal had nothing to do with the debate, but rather that the motion had to be clarified.