Parking meters, round two

The marathon meeting of the Georgetown City Council on Thursday ran the gamut from the rational to the risible.  The occasion was a decision on the vexed question of the parking meter contract, following the submission of a report on the matter last month by a council committee. As we reported on Friday, the council by the slenderest majority of one, decided to return to negotiations with Smart City Solutions (SCS), the investor in the project, for revised terms. Twelve councillors voted against this proposal, five of whom were in favour of a complete rescission of the contract and seven of whom wanted a decision on it postponed pending a High Court ruling on the matter of its legality.

It was the latter position in fact which was recommended by the Chairman of the committee, Mr Malcolm Ferreira, a member of Team Legacy, although his political colleague, Carolyn Caesar-Murray disassociated herself from that stance and voted with the majority. Our story quoted her as telling the SN reporter subsequently that waiting on the court, “challenges the legality of the contract. Since it was sent to the AG and they pronounced it legal, I am confident that it is legal… [Selecting this option] now saves time and fast-tracks getting things done to make sure the contract is in line with the Municipal and District Councils Act.” If the logic of this particular piece of gobbledegook would have defeated her fellow councillors had they heard it, is impossible to gauge; however, again it must be noted that twelve of them voted in concert with her.

The rationality of that act in itself is beyond the understanding of the Georgetown citizenry, since if the High Court eventually finds the contract illegal, the city council would have to abandon any negotiations with SCS, and return to the drawing board. Given what has happened and the antipathy which the parking meter contract has aroused among city residents, the worthies around the horseshoe table might discover that their local electorate is not going to tolerate parking meters in any shape or form. Be that as it may, if meters were still to be pursued for central Georgetown, at the very least the council would be required to adhere both to central and local government laws as it relates to the awarding of contracts. That, it must be emphasized, was glaringly absent in the case of SCS.

One can only marvel that Ms Caesar-Murray – although in fairness to her, perhaps also by implication the other twelve councillors who raised their hands with her – was not aware that the Attorney-General is not the ultimate legal authority in this land. If the thirteen were aware of this, and Ms Caesar-Murray’s pronouncement was just a convoluted way of saying they should take a gamble on the High Court’s ruling, then they are acting most irresponsibly; the city’s business is not a poker game. The objective logic of this particular situation meant that there were only two possible votes: one to wait for a High Court ruling, and the other to go for the more absolute position of revocation of the contract.  In the latter instance it could be argued that it does not matter what the court ruling is.

Mr Ferreira, it must be said, was not in agreement with a vote for the more absolute position, because he said, it would open the city to legal action from SCS. It might be mentioned, however, that lawyers have already expressed the view that the so-called ‘terror clause’ in the contract would not stand up even in a foreign court, where SCS would likely take a breach of contract case. As for what would happen if the council went ahead with renegotiating the contract, and the court declared it illegal, Mr Ferreira said the city would then be exposed to possible lawsuits from every citizen who had paid for parking under it.

It might be observed too, that SCS might simply not be amenable to any renegotiation, or if they are, the terms and conditions of a renewed contract would be no more palatable than the existing ones. In any event, one would have thought by now that the council would have got the message that the majority of Georgetowners simply do not want SCS anywhere near a parking meter project. What will they do, therefore, if they are hit with another boycott and series of demonstrations by city residents in the face of a renegotiated contract? Their whole approach  seems short-sighted and impractical.

Town Clerk Royston King, who has played such a central role in the whole parking meter saga, was not about to pass up an opportunity to throw an irrelevant spanner into the works, by claiming that the committee had exceeded its mandate. According to our report it was Mayor Patricia Chase-Green, no less, who rightly wasted no time in slapping down this improper intervention, since the full council had already accepted the report in its entirety.  Never one to be silenced easily, our reporter related how Mr King persisted with a PowerPoint presentation which produced the pertinent objection from Councillor Andrea Marks, “We ain’t wanna see all that.”

What the council did want to know was that the Town Clerk had been authorized to affix his signature and stamp to the contract, which he assured them he had. However, Councillor Fraser, who had sat on the previous council said that he did not recall being present at any meeting or seeing any document which authorized the Town Clerk to enter into a contract with SCS.

So we have now reached a point where a question has been asked about Mr King’s documented authorization to sign a contract with a company which is secretive in the extreme, and refused to give the committee access to its feasibility study and business proposal unless a confidentiality agreement was signed. The committee quite justifiably would not accede to this.

As we reported yesterday SCS declined to provide proof of the millions it claimed it had made in investments in the project, and the committee’s report said that consultations with an independent accountant had raised “red flags”, several of which were listed. In addition, meetings with representatives of the Ministry of Finance suggested that the city had failed to perform due diligence. Interestingly too, we reported that the accountant found that the Government of Guyana stood to collect more revenue than the City of Georgetown, although SCS would receive most of the money.

So in the context of all this negative information about SCS – which, by the way, it is almost impossible for the media to contact – and given the history of the response of Georgetowners to the parking meters, why did so many councillors vote to renegotiate the contract? One can understand the diehards who were actively involved in the contract, supported by the Town Clerk, but what about the others? Is this an expression of party solidarity (although there was some breaking of political ranks), rather than the expression of a genuine viewpoint? So what is central government’s view on this matter? They missed the opportunity to circumvent all this confusion many months ago when the Attorney General had the opportunity to declare the contract illegal, which the Minister of Finance for his part of the exercise, did do.

What City Hall has to understand is that irrational decisions adhered to doggedly for no obvious reason cause the citizenry to regard the councillors as extraordinarily incompetent, if they don’t actually become the subject unnecessarily of untoward allegations.

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