Opposition-nominated members of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) walked out of yesterday’s statutory meeting after a clash between Chairman Justice (retd) James Patterson and Commissioner Robeson Benn on the ethnic composition of the Commission’s Secretariat.
The meeting was abruptly adjourned following the walkout.
Benn told Stabroek News that he and his fellow opposition-nominated colleagues Bibi Shadick and Sase Gunraj walked out of the meeting after Patterson told him that “he will not recognise me for the rest of the meeting and I will not be allowed to speak.”
Patterson, he explained, had earlier taken issue with a statement he had made at Red House, where he said “up to 90%” of the staff at the GECOM Secretariat was African Guyanese. He said that the Chairman disputed his statement without offering to substantiate his own position.
Benn said he attempted to defend his position and to put it into the context of the necessity that a critical institution of the State must be representative of the diversified peoples of Guyana for development to take place.
He said Patterson prevented him from doing so and instead adjourned the meeting for half an hour and on resumption announced that he would not recognise him.
In a subsequent statement that was issued by the Office of the Opposition Leader, Benn, Shadick and Gunraj said that as a result of Patterson’s move to censure Benn, they were “forced” to walk out of the meeting.
“We view this as a blatant attempt to censure and muzzle discussion on critical and important issues at the Commission in general, and in particular contributions on issues regarding ethnic diversity in hiring practices at the Commission,” they said.
“We have a constitutional mandate to execute and do not serve at the pleasure of the Chairman of the Commission. We hope that this is not an attempt to alter the delicate balance contemplated by the Constitution in the composition of the Commission,” they added.
However, at a press conference called by the APNU+AFC-nominated commissioners in the forecourt of the GECOM Secretariat, Commissioner Vincent Alexander told the media that Patterson did not tell Benn that he would not recognise him but instead said that he would not “allow him to disrupt the meeting.”
“For some time now, there has been an interaction, not the most pleasant and not the most diplomatic and not the most acceptable, between the Chairman and Commissioner Benn,” he explained.
“From the moment the Chairman assumed office, there has been some disconnect and sometimes disruptive interaction coming particularly from [Benn]. That may have culminated today,” he added.
Reacting to this, Benn said he and his colleagues on many occasions were not being allowed to speak on issues and that Patterson “shows a lot of bias” in favour of the government [nominated] commissioners.
Alexander and his colleagues said they were not necessarily of the view that the meeting should have been adjourned or that the matter was handled as good as it could have been, “but we do understand that the chairman would have reacted to what has been an ongoing state of affairs.”
The issue of the composition of the GECOM staff, Alexander said, was raised because of Benn’s claims at Red House. “This is a matter he has been raising from time to time. There has never been any proposition how this matter could be addressed,” he added.
Asked how he arrived at the percentage on the composition of the staff, Benn said, “I don’t have to prove anything.” He added that anyone could visit the GECOM Secretariat and make their own determination based on what they see.
In response to the criticism that he had made no proposition on how to correct the purported imbalance, Benn said, “I am not discussing that now but it will be discussed.”
While Benn could not say where he got his information, Alexander said, he has questioned “if GECOM in its recruitment ask people their ethnicity and on what basis can someone count a percentage when we do not keep information based on ethnicity.” GECOM, he said, does not ask about ethnicity in recruitment.
“My own disposition,” he said, “is that GECOM’s approach to employment has been based on one of meritocracy.”
“If you want to change from meritocracy to something else, you have to make a concrete rational proposal to make that change. That has not been done,” he added.
Asked if the commission was open to having Benn’s claims investigated, such as by the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC), Alexander said, “We have no jurisdiction over the ERC. If the ERC, in its jurisdiction, seeks to investigate then the commission has no option but to cooperate.”
The three APNU+AFC-nominated commissioners, he added, do not operate as a block. “My point is if Commissioner Benn raise the matter, then he should present the evidence to support the claim and on the other hand he should have a proposition on how the matter should be addressed. We do not necessarily share his concern.”
Asked what decisions were affected by the adjournment of the meeting, Alexander said, “We are moving rapidly towards preparation for local government elections. The most critical thing we were to discuss today was the finalisation of the plan in preparation for those elections.”