Battle lines drawn again over paid parking

-MAPM to meet on the way forward

Mayor Patricia Chase-Green surveys the room as AFC councillors Lionel Jaikarran (at left) and Sherod Duncan (at right) were among the minority who cast their vote to have the contract completely rescinded. (Photo by Keno George)

Battle lines are once again being drawn over metered parking following Thursday’s vote by the Mayor and City Council (M&CC) to continue negotiations with the investor in the controversial project, Smart City Solutions (SCS).

The Movement Against Parking Meters (MAPM), which waged a months-long campaign for the revocation of the contract with SCS, intends to spend the weekend regrouping after the M&CC rejected a recommendation to revoke the agreement.

Given the furore over paid parking, which saw city residents boycotting the meters over a number of months, it has been pointed out that Thursday’s slim vote in favour – 13 to 12 – did not even represent a majority of those on the council. The M&CC has 30 councillors and a majority vote would be at least 16.  Observers say that a vote by 13 councillors could not be viewed as a clear mandate to go ahead. Thursday’s vote was also significant as several APNU councillors voted against the coalition’s line.

Don Singh:

“Over the weekend MAPM will have meetings with supporters as well as attend Monday’s statutory meeting where a timeline on the new dispensation will be presented, decisions on the way forward will then be made,” Don Singh told Stabroek News on behalf of the group.

He added that MAPM is extremely disappointed that 13 councillors voted for renegotiation after reading a report by the parking meter re-negotiation team headed by Team Legacy city councillor Malcolm Ferreira. “Smart City Solutions refused to hand over important documentation as it relates to their finances and studies done, that alone shows their contempt for the council and the citizens of Georgetown. We feel that very strongly it disqualifies SCS to be a partner since no good faith is shown. We applaud the councillors who voted to revoke the contract in its entirety and those who voted to await the outcome of the pending court matters,” Singh explained.

Incensed

Meanwhile, an incensed Deodat Indar, President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI), questioned the inclusion in the Ferreira report of the option of a renegotiated contract.

“Putting that there when you know it would be the only palatable option for a large bloc (on the council) even after the majority of the stakeholders you consulted called for its revocation… well then…,” Indar said.  He declined to make any further comment until the GCCI had decided on a collective response.

On Thursday, 13 of 25 councillors present at an extraordinary meeting voted to continue the metered parking system with SCS, pending a renegotiation of the controversial contract with the company. This was the first of five options presented to the council by the renegotiation committee led by Ferreira. Other options presented included a revocation of the contract as well as a suspension of discussions until the High Court rules on its legality. These options, however, failed to find favour with the majority.

As a result of Thursday’s vote, the council will have to seek a further extension on the Cabinet-ordered suspension of the project.  It is unclear whether SCS would be amenable to a renegotiation of the contract. It has maintained its silence for months now.

The metered parking project was suspended by Central Government in March after which the seven-member committee was mandated to review the contract, consult with all stakeholders and recommend possible solutions to any impasse that may arise from the implementation of the metered parking project.

The team was specifically tasked with addressing five areas of concern identified by Central Government. These included the unequal terms of the contract, which disproportionately favours the concessionaire; the fees, which are too burdensome; the too high penalties for non-compliance; and the inclusion of gazetted public roads and certain areas around schools and hospitals.

After three months of stakeholder engagements, the committee submitted its report to Mayor Patricia Chase-Green and Town Clerk Royston King on August 2.

In that report, it noted that though SCS was asked to provide proof of its stated millions in investments, it refused to do so. The company also refused to share with the committee its feasibility study and business proposal unless its members agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement.

However, the report says “given the public nature of the parking meter fiasco the committee found it necessary to reject the idea of signing a non-disclosure agreement or to be bound by secrecy.”

Additionally, during its three months of investigations, the committee noted that concessionaire SCS had vastly inflated estimates of its capital investment.

During a meeting with SCS, a query into the actual investments made saw Director of Business Development Amir Oren noting that “costs are his and that this is not something he is doing for the first time.”

Variance

While SCS refused to provide documentation, the report says consultations with an independent accountant raised  red flags about the veracity of several of SCS’ claims and meetings with representatives of the Ministry of Finance suggested that the city failed to perform due diligence.

It notes that the accountant found that there is a more than 25% variance in SCS’s estimation of its original operations total and the accountant’s total. The variance is in excess of $600 million.

The report says the accountant, Lancelot Atherly, found that the total was adjusted for apparent excessive estimates. He further explained that 25% is a conservative estimate and that the actual variance could be as much as 50% since quite a lot is overstated and some aspects seem vastly overstated, bloated and inflated.

The accountant also found that the Government of Guyana stands to collect more revenue than the city of Georgetown by way of Corporation Tax and Value-Added Tax  but SCS gets the most overall.

Given the importance of ascertaining the true initial capital expenditure, Atherly advised the committee that it was prudent that all verifying documents be presented to the committee.

The committee said this recommendation was also made by Minister of Legal Affairs Basil Williams and Finance Secretary Hector Butts, who agreed that SCS should willingly release such documents as requested, as is the norm for due diligence.

The documents, however, were never presented to the committee and so no further discussions took place.

Despite these findings, several councillors, including Vice Chairman of the committee Noelle Chow-Chee, argued that the city must work with SCS to improve the contract rather than revoke it.

Singh, who was present at Thursday’s meeting, has a dim view of the arguments presented.

“MAPM views the arguments with mixed feelings. There were outrageous comments from some councillors as it relates to the female reproductive system as well as racial remarks. We also noted that at least five councillors bemoaned the fact that they did not vote on this contract and asked for the minutes to be presented. The distaste continued when the mayor retorted to councillor (Bisram) Kuppen’s comment that the city streets and parapets were being given away, that ancestral lands were given away. It is clear to MAPM that there is a distinct clique that are managing City Hall without input from all elected representatives,” he said in an invited comment.

The arguments referred to were those of councillor Welton Clarke, who equated revoking the metered parking contract with aborting a child; councillor Junior Garrett, who told the council that Guyana is a country of 100% black people since if you “not white you black,” as well as the repeated request from Councillors such as Gregory Fraser, Sherod Duncan and Alfred Mentore for evidence that the Town Clerk was authorised to sign the contract with SCS.

 

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