City Hall’s bizarre behaviour

This is the second time in less than a month that we have had reason to editorialise on the protracted impasse between City Hall and two private contractors, Cevons and Puran Brothers over the municipality’s $300 million-odd debt to the two companies and the consequences that continue to derive therefrom. What qualifies this matter for further editorial attention is first, the highly sensitive issue of urban waste disposal and its public health consequences, a matter on which the municipality has previously been weighed and found considerably wanting; secondly, the fact that there has now been a further escalation of the impasse between the council and the two out-of-pocket contractors; and thirdly, that other recent unfortunate events which have had a national impact (the catastrophic fire at the Georgetown Prison comes immediately to mind) provide a poignant example of what can sometimes be the  consequences of inattention or indifference to matters of national importance.

As far as the garbage disposal contractors are concerned the long and short of it is that having withdrawn their services in July over their protracted failure to make any meaningful headway in persuading City Hall to arrive at some sort of modus vivendi in the matter of the liquidation of the debt, they returned to work shortly thereafter on the basis of what we were told was an undertaking that some immediate move towards liquidation of some reasonable portion of the debt would ensue immediately thereafter. That, they say, did not happen, so that over last weekend they gave notice of their intention to withdraw their services again, as of last Sunday. City Hall, immediately thereafter, issued the two contractors with letters to the effect that it considered their respective contracts to be terminated. By last Sunday the municipality had announced that the two had been replaced by some smaller contractors and that the urban garbage collection regime would continue as normal.

There is something fearfully bizarre about City Hall’s actions. On which planet can two by no means large private sector businesses be owed three hundred odd million dollars for garbage disposal services and be expected to carry on, ad infinitum, without even so much as a reasonable assurance regarding a realistic time frame for the liquidation of the debt? And when, not for the first time and having found the municipality to be operating in considerably bad faith in relation to discussions on the liquidation of the debt and in the absence of any other realistic option they withdraw their labour as a means of pressing an eminently legitimate claim, their contracts are unceremoniously terminated and replacements installed?

What is unfolding here is the accustomed Kafkaesque management style of City Hall which had long turned the institution into a kind of oddity in the general scheme of things in Guyana. And if the mind-boggling treatment of the matter of the city’s debts to the two contractors and their unceremonious replacement is allowed to pass without some sort of robust response, that could mark the start of a journey down an Orwellian road (if we have not already embarked on that journey) as far as the management of the capital’s affairs is concerned.

City Hall’s letter of termination to the two companies comes as close as the institution can go  without careering completely off the rails in plumbing the depths of absurdity. The thrust of its argument is that its outstanding $300-million-dollar debt to the garbage disposal companies does not in any way give it the right to withdraw its services in protest, the companies’ protracted endurance of the consequences of the long-delayed payments coupled with the attendant broken promises, ‘bounced’ cheques and frequent excursions into belligerence by City Hall, notwithstanding. Surely, that position is located at the dizzy heights of absurdity.

That having been said the greatest danger here would be for us to dismiss this issue as simply one of City Hall’s well-known excursions into eccentricity. What assurances do we have, for example, that in a thoroughly misguided and irrational attempt to remove the issue of its debt to its two terminated contractors from its already heavily cluttered front burner, City Hall is not simply digging a hole to fill an existing one by parking the multi-million dollar debt to the two substantive contractors and pressing into service new contractors whose credentials in the delivery of a service of crucial importance to normal life in the capital we know little about and whose payments will, presumably, now become the immediate priority?

Try as one might there is little in the way of unreasonableness to be found in the posture of the two aggrieved service providers. Their instances of withdrawal of labour have been the product of their repeated failure to persuade City Hall of the need to create a serious and reliable negotiating framework within which the structured liquidation of debts can be managed. The municipality’s posture and its pronouncements point to an insistence that it permanently hold the whip hand in the situation. The municipality evidently favours an environment in which it can have the flexibility to give commitments and then to cynically withdraw them. As is its accustomed style, City Hall is not prepared to strike a posture of contriteness associated with being regretful of having given offence. Its chosen option here is recklessness, intimidation, and the perpetration of an appalling injustice.

Whether the letters of termination and the recruitment of replacements are simply being used as instruments designed to force the two original contractors into simply letting the matter of their outstanding monies rest or whether City Hall has decided to pull together some new, long-term alternative garbage disposal arrangement for the capital whilst shoving the outstanding debts to the two contractors to one side, the reality of the situation is that it has embarked on a hugely counterproductive course of action since a debt of that size will not simply go away. That having been said, of course, City Hall has grown used to managing the affairs of the capital from a position of precariousness and could, presumably, find some way of balancing this crisis against the myriad others that it already has on its plate. Here, one gets the impression that the extant strategy (which resembles a repeat of its ham-fisted approach to the parking meters issue) is underpinned by the belief that a sufficient amount of bluster is more than enough to see it through.

It would, of course, be an enormous travesty if the private sector, moreso the business support organizations were to remain silent in the face of what has been City Hall’s utterly contemptuous treatment of two of its long-standing and crucial service providers. That would set an ugly precedent that could take us down a slippery slope. The other question that arises has to do with the risks that inhere in suddenly re-assigning the hugely important and not uncomplicated task of urban garbage disposal to new contractors whose ability to provide such a service at an acceptable level we know little about, bearing in mind that previous stand-in arrangements have not worked well.

Government has a responsibility here too. This is not the time for a convenient drawing of jurisdictional lines that seek to justify inaction, legitimize injustice and perhaps even put urban public health at risk. Taking a hands-off position in a situation where City Hall’s recklessly imposed solution to a legitimate problem is underpinned by equal measures of expediency, recklessness and overwhelming injustice is not an option which central government can embrace in good conscience. It has to do much more.

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