STB chairman says Urban Renewal controversy, Rubis fuel spill fallout demonstrate the urgent need for transparency and accountability in government
The “shocking revelations” of the past several weeks have prompted prominent attorney, Fred Smith, QC, to call for the immediate passage of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Smith, chairman of the fast growing social and environmental advocacy movement, Save The Bays (STB), said that in the absence of legal mechanisms guaranteeing transparency and accountability, the PLP government may end up running the country “into the ground” before the end of their current term in office.
“We cannot afford another month, much less another year of this,” he said. “We need an FOIA right now. It is by far the single most important legislative item on Parliament’s agenda today.
“The PLP made it a top campaign promise, but since gaining office they have kicked the can repeatedly down the road. With the shocking revelations of the last few weeks, we now begin to appreciate why.”
Smith said government is clearly concerned that an FOIA will lead to the public exposure of further cases of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, pointing to the leaked Auditor General’s probe into Urban Renewal’s small home repair (SHR) project, as well as the newly-released report into the catastrophic Rubis fuel spill.
Under the SHR, government disbursed more than $3 million in public funds for repairs to the homes of low-income families and the disabled. According to the Auditor General, however, several of the contractors – some of whom had little to no experience and were selected according to questionable means – failed to complete the work. The probe found that where the work was completed, the homes in question were not necessarily occupied by disadvantaged families.
Meanwhile, the Rubis fuel spill came to the attention of government in January 2013, yet families living near the site were not warned of the severe health risks they faced from air pollution and groundwater contamination. A report confirming the residents were exposed to substances known to cause a range of serious illnesses, including cancer, has been in the hands of government for more than a year, but was only released last week.
“While this government has already proven, time and again, that it is incapable of either managing the public’s money, or guaranteeing our safety, these latest two examples really take the cake. What it boils down to is an administration that is willing to abandon ordinary Bahamians, in order to protect their own interests and do favors for their friends and supporters.
“Who were these contractors who failed to repair the homes of the poor and disabled under the SHR? Whose homes did they repair instead?
“And, how can four government ministers, all tasked in different ways with protecting the public, be aware that the lives of an entire community have been placed at risk by a dangerous toxic leak, and yet say nothing for more than a year? Without an FOIA, the nightmare that the residents of Marathon are currently living will be repeated again and again across this country.”
Smith reminded the public that these matters follow a host of other controversies which remain shrouded in mystery, including the $600 million letter of intent signed by former Works Parliamentary Secretary, Renward Wells, without Cabinet approval; the BAMSI debacle, in which a $5 million public building which burned down turned out to be uninsured; as well as multiple secret deals with foreign developers that often lead to significant environmental degradation and social dislocation.
“Government agents and operatives cannot continue to run riot over this society in the name of their own political self-interest, he said. “They are coming dangerously close to destroying The Bahamas. The public must join Save The Bays in demanding Freedom of Information, right now. The future of this country really does depend on it.”