Where public resources are concerned or where the public interest is involved, there must be the highest degree of transparency in relation to the actions of both elected and non-elected public officials. Elected officials owe a special duty of care to ensure that this principle is strictly observed because of their stewardship responsibilities. Citizens need the unrestricted flow of information for them to make their own judgements as to how well those who have been elected to manage the affairs of the State on their behalf, are discharging their responsibilities. Non-elected public officials, on the other hand, should not in any way be restricted in keeping citizens informed about how their tax dollars are expended and the extent to which there is economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the operations of government, both centrally and at the local level. This is a fundamental principle of any system of democratic governance.
The reality of the situation is, however, different in that successive governments and local democratic bodies have failed us in many respects. Numerous examples abound of the lack of information, or access thereof, of major projects – the disastrous Skeldon Sugar Modernisation Plant; aborted Amaila Falls project; the construction and operations of the loss-making Marriott Hotel; the financially troubled Berbice River Bridge operations; the stalled construction of the Specialty Hospital; the wasted expenditure on the Fibre Optic Cable project; allegations of over-pricing of expansion of the Cheddi Jagan International Airport; the exorbitant cost of the D’Urban Park project; and the controversial Georgetown Metered Parking project. In all of these projects, serious questions have been raised by the majority of stakeholders regarding the governance arrangements and the proper accountability of public resources that were expended on them. Had there been an unrestricted flow of information, vital and timely feedback could have been obtained and the necessary modifications made, thereby avoiding the disastrous consequences in the execution of these and other projects.
This column has been at pains to point out that confidentiality has its limits as far as the operations of government are concerned, be they central government, the rest of the public sector, or local government organs. Four areas can be identified whereby one could argue a case for some degree of confidentiality. These are in relation to national security, foreign policy, personal privacy and commercial secrecy. None of the above projects, however, qualifies for withholding vital information from the public.
In this article, we will discuss the issue of transparency in relation to the Georgetown City Council’s Metered Parking project that has been suspended amid pressure from key stakeholders. In passing, we note that calls have been made from various quarters for the Government to release to the public the contract entered into with ExxonMobil for the extraction of crude oil in Guyana’s waters. So far, it has resisted attempts to do so, citing a 1997 amendment to the Petroleum Exploration and Production Act that precluded it from making any such disclosure. However, if we are seriously committed to adherence to good governance practices, transparency and accountability, how difficult is it to secure a further amendment to the Act to enable the contract to be laid in the National Assembly, thereby making it available to the public?
Background to the metered parking project
On 23 May 2016, the Georgetown City Council entered into a contract with National Parking Systems (NPS) in partnership with Smart City Solutions (SCS) for the installation and operations of parking meters in Georgetown. The matter was, however, not discussed with the Council prior to the award of the contract nor did the Council give its approval to the award.
By Section 231 of the Municipal and District Councils’ Act, before entering into any contract for the execution of any work or the supply of any goods to the value of $250,000, or more, a council is required to give notice of such proposed contract and “shall by such notice invite any person willing to undertake the same to submit a sealed tender thereof to the council…” The Minister may by directions in writing exempt any council from the above requirement in respect of certain works or goods. However, these procedures were not followed in relation to the award of the contract.
The Mayor of Georgetown contended that since no funds from City Hall are being used in the installation and operations of the parking meters, there was no need to go to tender. She further stated that the Council would be receiving 20% of the gross proceeds. However, her assessment ignores the fact that without competitive bidding, the Council is not in a position to ascertain whether the offer by NPS was the best, which is the reason for adherence to Section 231. The fact that the City Council failed to follow these procedures and proceeded to handpick a contractor is a serious indictment is terms of transparency and competitiveness.
The other issue is one of due diligence which is an established procedure before major contracts are awarded. The Deputy Mayor had contended that there was a “total lack of verifiable information on the company and its capacity to execute the scope of the project”. He stated that in his research he did not find any company by the name ‘Smart City Solutions’ associated with parking meter systems, in any of the places where the firm claimed it has done business. Internet searches by the Stabroek News also did not find any information on Smart City Solutions. According to the newspaper, “while NPS has a website, it is rudimentary and the company does not appear to have undertaken any major projects”.
Since the installation and operations of the parking meters, the public outcry has been overwhelming. There was no meaningful consultation with the key stakeholders, mainly the owners of the various business houses and other commercial entities, in order to secure the necessary buy-in so vitally needed to make the venture a success. In addition, there are concerns about the level of fees charged, resulting in the paid-parking areas being substantially devoid of vehicles during business hours. This action has resulted in a significant decline in business activity which did not augur well for the overall performance of the economy.
Suspension of the project
The overwhelming reaction from key stakeholders to the metered parking project saw the intervention of the Government in March 2017. The City Council was requested to put the project on hold on the project, pending the outcome of a review into five areas of concern. These include the unequal terms of the contract which disproportionately favoured the concessionaire; the fees which were too burdensome; the high penalties for non-compliance; and the exclusion of gazetted public roads and certain areas around schools and hospitals. As a result, a Metered Parking Negotiation Committee was set up to review the contract with SCS, consult with all stakeholders and recommend possible solutions as a means of moving forward.
The Committee submitted its report on 2 August 2017 in which it recommended five options, including a further suspension of the contract with SCS pending the outcome of the court proceedings; renegotiation of the contract; or rescinding the contract in its entirety and replacing it with the City’s own parking meter system. The report also noted that SCS vastly inflated the estimates of its capital investment and, despite repeated requests, refused to provide financial and other data, including the results of the feasibility study, its business plan, environmental impact assessment, and tax concessions granted. The Committee was requested to sign “a non-disclosure agreement or to be bound by secrecy” but declined to do so.
The Movement Against Parking Meters (MAPM) considered the report “fair and unprejudiced” but it expressed its concern that SCS continues to operate with an air of secrecy. MAPM is also of the view that the courts will find the contract to be illegal and is therefore calling on the City Council to rescind it.
Last Thursday, the City Council deferred consideration on the future of the parking meters project to allow for stakeholders’ comments on the report of the Negotiation Committee. It also agreed for copies of the report to be posted in the Town Clerk’s office, the Treasurer’s office and the National Library, and to be made available to the media upon request. In this regard, the Mayor announced a further one month’s extension to facilitate further consultations.
The Council’s decision, however, did not find favour with the MAPM. Sensing that there may be amendments to the report, the MAPM considered the report to be final after four months of work by the Negotiation Committee. It also considered the latest action by the City Council as a further attempt to delay the final decision on the matter.
There are three issues that one needs to reflect on in deciding on the way forward. The first is that the City Council, as the elected body, was not in any way involved and did not approve of the contract with SCS. This raises serious questions about the contract’s validity. Second, there has been a breach of Section 231 of the Municipal and District Councils’ Act since the proposal to have paid parking meters was not publicly advertised in the interest of transparency and competitiveness, and to enable all prospective operators to submit expressions of interest. Third, judicial intervention has been sought in relation to the operations of the metered parking project.
In the circumstances, we should await the outcome of the court proceedings before deciding on any further course of action. Indeed, at this stage it would be premature to consider the other recommended options.