Government obstruction

In January of this year Mayor Hamilton Green convened a meeting to explore approaches to saving City Hall, which is in a critical state.  It was agreed at that meeting to set up a committee which would put together a file on the building to facilitate its restoration. Engineer Bert Carter who was present emphasized that the city council needed to move urgently, a sentiment which found concurrence among the members of the gathering.

In April, Messrs Ihosvany De Oca Morales and Nigel Renwick from TVA consultants came down here to give their preliminary assessment of the condition of City Hall. What they had to say was not reassuring; according to one of them the structure was in “cardiac arrest,” and some issues should be addressed immediately. It should be noted that their visit was funded by the private sector and they themselves waived any fees.

Not long after came the consultants’ report, which identified “water ingress” as the primary reason for the deterioration of the building. Among many other things it drew attention to the defective guttering, entire sections of which were missing, blocked or disconnected; damaged valleys; degraded window sills; and defective shingles. A large water tank on the first deck level of the tower, they said, should be relocated, while the issue of the drainage around the structure would have to be addressed. The consultants also reported they had detected some structural settlement and referred to structural members in partial collapse which needed to be dealt with immediately.  Finally, they advised that a detailed architectural investigation of the building was required.

The Mayor, clearly accepting of the report said that the immediate things which had to be done were fixing the guttering, stopping the leaks and removing the water tank, and he expected the Town Clerk and City Engineer to deal with them without procrastinating. In early June, however, he confirmed to SN that no work had yet been done to stop the water leaking, and he accused Town Clerk (ag) Carol Sooba of failing to carry out his written instructions on the matter. It should be explained that only Ms Sooba can get the works under way, because only she can sign the cheques.

One month after that Deputy Mayor Patricia Chase Green made the same complaint, namely, that the Town Clerk was not doing what she was supposed to do. When Ms Sooba herself was asked by an SN reporter about the rehabilitation work, she brushed it off with the curt rejoinder that she would hold a press conference when she was ready. Exactly when that will be was not enlarged upon, and we are now in August and still she has done nothing.

But of course, Ms Sooba is not the ultimate authority in this matter; she is answerable, not to the Mayor and City Council, but to two bosses in the Ministry of Local Government. So our reporter duly approached Minister Norman Whittaker to get a feel for whether any sense of urgency about the condition of City Hall had penetrated the walls of his office. The short answer is, apparently not.  Oh, he told her, he was currently looking at the report submitted by the consultants and would be discussing the restoration project with the council. What does one say about a Minister who after the passage of two months or so is still ‘looking at’ a report of modest size and clear language?  The best that one can think is that either it is evidence of unconscionable dawdling on his part, or a case of unbelievable indecision. Other than that, deliberate obstruction would seem to be the obvious explanation.

It is always possible, of course, that Mr Whittaker got stuck at the part where the report recommended the setting up of an independent action committee to shepherd the restoration process. Like most of his PPP colleagues, he is no doubt allergic to the word ‘independent,’ and so perhaps he went into immediate stall mode.
It has to be said that it is not as if there is not money available to undertake some emergency work. It was former president Bharrat Jagdeo who allocated $20 million before the 2011 election for repairs to City Hall. As things stand, the City Engineer spent only $5 million of that sum, for reasons which remain obscure, added to which, according to the Mayor, he did not utilize what he did spend on the most critical items as he was instructed to do.

So here we have two PPP ministers and their acting Town Clerk, as well as an entire government which is prepared to sit back and watch City Hall collapse. It is not what the overwhelming majority of the citizens of Georgetown want – but they don’t care about that. It is probably not what a large number of people in the country at large want – but they don’t care about that either. It would be disastrous for tourism – but they don’t care about that; and it would be worse than disastrous for the heritage of this country – but they certainly don’t care about that. All they care about is their political quarrel with the Mayor and City Council, and making sure one way and another that that particular local government organ is blocked as effectively as possible, maybe in the hope (among other reasons) they will have an excuse to install an IMC.

It seems incredible to think that they cannot separate the iconic nature of City Hall from the politics of this land, and are prepared to watch it crumble around Ms Sooba’s ears in order to make a political point. If City Hall goes, it is not the Mayor and City Council which will be blamed for its demise; it is the central government. As it is, City Hall is not, and should never be made a political issue under any circumstances; it is a heritage issue pure and simple.

And it isn’t as if there was not enough verbiage about heritage emanating from the government and the ruling party last week, but given what they are doing to City Hall one must conclude that what they said had no meaning.  The thing is, every carpenter in this country of whatever background who picks up a saw or a hammer is part of a long tradition going back into slavery times, and in particular to the enslaved artisans known as the Winkels. When the British arrived in 1796, they were so impressed with Winkel skills, that they transferred a number of them from Berbice to Demerara to work on public building projects.

It is Winkel knowledge about working in wood which passed into the wider society after (and even before) emancipation, and over time the creative carpenter-contractors of the 19th century erected what used to be known as the most graceful capital in the anglophone Caribbean. Although Ignatius Scoles actually designed City Hall, his efforts were a partial reflection of the wooden buildings he saw around him, while he also knew the intricacies of his architect’s drawings could be expertly reproduced in three dimensions by the skilled carpenters of his time. Why, therefore, is the government talking about heritage on Emancipation Day, yet at the same time appearing to be complicit in its destruction?

Will President Ramotar do something for the heritage of this nation, and call in Messrs Ganga Persaud and Whittaker so he can issue them with instructions to do what is necessary to save City Hall. And while Minister Whittaker in terms of celerity may not be the most qualified person to do this, would he nevertheless please explain to Ms Sooba exactly what the words ‘immediately’ and ‘urgently’ mean?

If the PPP/C government allows City Hall to fall into ruin simply because of a political quarrel with Mayor Green and most of his Council, then they can rest assured that they will have absolutely no hope in this lifetime of the Georgetown electorate giving them anything but the most meagre share of votes whenever local government elections are eventually held. The citizens of this capital city – no matter what their ethnicity, etc ‒ will not forget or forgive their small-mindedness, their contempt for heritage and their sheer philistinism.

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