While expressing his disappointment at how the ethnic composition of the staff of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) Secretariat has been misrepresented, GECOM Chairman Justice (retd) James Patterson says the elections management body will hire according to merit and not ethnic quotas.
A claim by PPP/C-nominated Commissioner Robeson Benn at a forum at Red House recently that “up to 90%” of the staff at the GECOM Secretariat was African Guyanese was the source of conflict at last week’s statutory Commission meeting, which came to an abrupt end when Benn and his fellow opposition-nominated colleagues Bibi Shadick and Sase Gunraj walked out.
“They [the commissioners] could have gotten it [the ethnic composition figures]. They don’t want to get it. They have access to that,” Patterson insisted during an interview with Sunday Stabroek on Friday.
He said that a chart detailing the ethnic composition of GECOM’s entire staff population, which was published in sections of the media, came from the Human Resources Department and “is accessible to Commissioners.”
According to the figures, at GECOM’s head office 51% of the staff if African, 22% East Indian, 21% is Mixed Race and the Portuguese, Chinese and Amerindians make up the remainder.
GECOM as a whole has a total of 383 staff members on its payroll. Of this number, 46% or 178 are of Afro-Guyanese, 21% or 80 are Indo-Guyanese, 20% or 77 are Mixed Race, while the remainder comprises of Amerindians (45), Portuguese (2) and Chinese (1).
Following the walkout from last Monday’s meeting, Benn had explained that Patterson disputed his Red House statement without offering to substantiate his own position. According to Benn, 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.
The APNU+AFC-nominated commissioners have, however, disputed the other commissioners’ version of events, saying that the Chairman told Benn that he would not “allow him to disrupt the meeting.”
During his interview with this newspaper, Patterson reiterated that if Benn or his fellow commissioners wanted to know the ethnic make-up of GECOM, they could have gone down to the Human Resources Department and gotten the information. “Easily and we have it in figures as well as this,” he said, while displaying a pie chart.
Asked whether he would say that Benn exaggerated when he cited the 90% figure, Patterson said, “That’s a tidy word… If it is 46 [%] and you say it is 90 [%], what have you done? Spoken the truth? And further I say not.”
Patterson, when asked whether he felt that 46% of one ethnic race employed at a specific place should be a cause for concern, said “but why only apply that to GECOM? That is my response.”
He then referred to the issues arising from the implementation of affirmative action
legislation and policies in the United States to address discrimination. “Until there is legislation here that allows me so to do, people will get employment here according to merit. I am not programmed to look at anybody and say you can’t get admission here because you are such and such an ethnic person. I am not programmed to do that and my critics know that every well,” he stressed.
Patterson added that he was disappointed with the way the issue has been blown out of proportion. “I must be but then again I shouldn’t be because… my experience is… if everything goes too smooth all the time, you relax… [it] cannot go smooth all the time, so you setting yourself up if you just relax. Human nature is not like that, you know. Life is not like that,” he said.
With regards to the way forward, he said that he will continue to hold statutory meetings and it is up to the PPP/C-nominated commissioners to attend or not. If the matter of the Secretariat’s ethnic composition arises again, it will be dealt with then. “I have no control over the thoughts or actions of anybody,” he added.
Benn has claimed that he and his colleagues have not being allowed to speak on issues at many meetings and that Patterson “shows a lot of bias” towards the government-nominated commissioners.
When asked about this, Patterson made it clear that he will not “respond to anything Mr. Benn says.”
The PPP-nominated Commissioners in their statement stressed that Patterson’s posture towards Benn was 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,”.
“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.