The Big Four and the secret contract

Stabroek News
June 19, 2016

Last week the Big Four from the city council went to Mexico. To look at parking meters. It would have cost the ratepayers of Georgetown their airfares (did they travel economy?); their hotel bills (did they seek lodgings at a four star hostelry or something more modest?); a per diem for each of them; and sundry expenses. What was the total? No one is privy to that, except, perhaps, the City Treasurer. And why did four people have to go to see parking meters - if any at all? Ah well, the answer to that mystery has been lost in the impenetrable workings of the four municipal minds concerned.

Two weeks ago, Puran Bros and Cevons, which do an efficient job of collecting garbage in the parts of the capital which they've been assigned, complained that they were owed millions by the municipality. As we reported on May 31 this year, the city council is said to be in a financial crisis and is casting around for sources of revenue to offset its expenses. Well they might not have been able to find the money to pay the refuse collectors two weeks ago, but they had no difficulty affording a jaunt to Mexico. Now honestly, are Town Clerk Royston King, Mayor Patricia Chase-Green, and Councillors Oscar Clarke and Junior Garett so alienated from public sentiment that they believe citizens would want their hard-earned rates to be expended on an overseas excursion rather than on paying the companies who clear their garbage?

As everyone knows, however, the trek north by four members of the old guard from the previous council is not the main body of the story; it all revolves around one of those enigmatic 'contracts' which have been inflicted on the nation in more recent times, and which in this case, as indicated earlier, involve parking meters. First the city announced that the capital would be divided into two and a company called Astrolabe would install parking meters in one part, and a second company would be responsible for the other part. Astrolabe had claimed that it had a contract with the municipality dating back to 2007, although no details surrounding this were ever disclosed. What is known is that when Councillor Alfred Mentore had sought clarification on the 2007 Astrolabe contract, he was told by the inscrutable Councillor Clarke at a recent statutory meeting that the city's attorney would handle the matter.

Be that as it may, City Hall then announced that Astrolabe would not be considered for the project after all because it "lacks both the human and technological competencies to install and manage parking meters in the city..." Given that there was only a short time lag between Astrolabe being favoured with half the project and then being deemed as lacking the competencies necessary, one has to ask if anyone was doing their homework - never mind due diligence - in the first instance. Whatever else can be said, it all has the aura of a mystery novel about it.

Following this hiccup in plans, one company was left in play. This was National Parking Meters/Smart City Solutions (NPS/SCS) concerning which the municipal authorities waxed positively lyrical. SCS had years of experience especially in Latin America, the public was given to understand, never mind that our sceptical, probing Deputy Mayor, Sherod Duncan could not find any firm under the name of Smart City Solutions "associated with parking meter systems in any of the places the company is purporting to have done business like Panama." Then there is the matter of the mysterious Simon Moshevilli who supposedly represents SCS. "I have found no one with said name connected with said company," Mr Duncan wrote on his Facebook page.

As we reported last Sunday, this newspaper undertook its own research, and could not find any information on SCS. NPS, we said, does have a website, but "it is rudimentary and the company does not appear to have undertaken any major projects." So what are we talking about here? Another of those questionable projects like the road to Amaila Falls?

Given what has emerged so far, the residents of the capital were hardly surprised to learn that the contract was not subject to a competitive process and put out to tender. Where that particular issue was concerned, however, Mayor Chase-Green was ready with a response, telling Stabroek News that bids were never invited since they were not investing any of the city's finances. "The reason it did not go to tender," she said, "is because we are not spending money on it... [but] at the end of the day [the council] will be receiving 20% of the gross."

Does that mean this was the best deal available? What kind of returns would the company be expecting if it is the party investing all the finance, and could Guyanese afford the charges? What were the other options open to the council? Did anyone do any research, or did they just revivify a contract which had been committed to under the previous council, but which the central government of the time vetoed? If the latter, was anyone directed to vet the bona fides of the company, and how was that vetting process undertaken?

One thing is absolutely certain: the need for parking meters was not brought to the horseshoe table for prior discussion, and not surprisingly, therefore, neither was the contract. That it existed was announced by Mayor Chase-Green at a statutory meeting last month, but Stabroek News was told by a source at City Hall that questions raised by Mr Duncan and PPP/C Councillor Bisham Kuppen at that time were "brushed aside".

So, here we have a contract signed with a company, the details of which are to all appearances a closely guarded secret. When it was signed, who signed it and the terms and conditions it contains is not information, it seems, that the Deputy Mayor and councillors, let alone the citizenry can be trusted with. In fact, it was at last Monday's statutory meeting that it was learnt that even the Deputy Town Clerk Sharon Henry and Vice Chairman of the Finance Committee Mentore did not know what was in the contract. Suffice it to say that the assembled councillors were not amused, more especially when they also learnt for the first time that the Big Four were in the land of the Aztecs doing an on-the-ground inspection for the roll-out of the meters. That too, has yet to be justified to members of the council and by extension the citizenry.

At a more fundamental level, of course, there has been no public discussion about whether we need parking meters at all, more especially when these are not part of any larger city planning exercise. Even if the parking meter project were to be considered in isolation (which ideally it shouldn't be) there has been no approach to citizens to canvass their views in order to find out what the difficulties might be. The protagonists of this project have not even considered the argument of unfairness in a situation where only a few streets are being targeted, while the calculations for what it might possibly cost to park a vehicle are astronomical from the point of view of the average impecunious Guyanese. As Mr Ralph Ramkarran pointed out in his column last week, the installation of parking meters cannot have as its sole or even its primary objective the raising of money.

Given the lack of public consultation on the proposed meters; the absence of debate on the pros and cons; the failure to lay all matters connected with the project before the city council; the apparent lack of research on options regarding who should be contracted to implement the project; the seeming insubstantiality of the company which was selected; and the clandestine nature of the contract with that company, the only sensible thing at this stage is for the whole parking meter programme to be suspended, if not aborted altogether. This is despite the money which has been expended so far, and for which an account will have to be given.

Has the old guard on the city council forgotten so soon that it was on a promise of a return to democratic principles that the APNU+AFC government was brought to office, and that those principles apply to local government as much as to central government? When the citizens of Georgetown went into the polling booth to vote for the Mayor's party and gave it such an overwhelming majority, it was because they wanted a change from the old autocratic ways.

In these times the ratepayers are looking for accountability, transparency and democracy, not dissimulation, autarchy and some mystery story.