Friday afternoon’s decision by Chief Justice Anthony Smellie regarding the eligibility of West Bay representative and Cabinet minister Tara Rivers to serve elected government may trigger a district by-election in as little as six weeks.
The chief justice is scheduled to deliver his judgment at 2.30pm Friday regarding the critical Grand Court challenge to Ms Rivers heard on 17, 18 and 19 July. Should the judge disqualify her, West Bay voters could face the prospect of a limited re-run of the 22 May polls that elevated her, an independent candidate, to one of the four district seats in the Legislative Assembly, breaking the traditional United Democratic Party stronghold.
At the same time, the Progessives-led government must revoke Ms Rivers 28 May appointment as minister for education, employment and gender affairs.
Supervisor of Elections Wesley Howell said his office was poised for a West Bay poll, calling it a “mini-election, just running it in one district”. Because a lone seat is at stake, he said, the process was analogous to a “single-member constituency”, similar to that in North Side or East End.
Commenting on how by-elections are organised in general, rather than specifically addressing the potential court outcome, Mr. Howell said, “It’s like any regular election, although it’s limited,” he said, “but there are the same number of polling stations, and we’ll have the same early voting and mobile voting. There may be a shortened period between the issue of the writs and postal ballots, but there are no special issues.”
Following his Friday decision, Chief Justice Smellie will pass a formal determination to the governor’s office. Should the chief justice mandate a by-election, the governor will issue a writ determining a polling schedule, triggering Election Office appointment of officials.
“It’s all in the law,” Mr. Howell said, “although for a by-election, the period could be shortened. It regularly is three months, but it cannot be less than six weeks.”
He said it often required as long as six months to prepare staffing and logistics for national polls because “there’s quite a bit of heavy lifting. We have to go from a handful of people to several hundred, and they all have to be paid.”
“If a poll is to be taken in West Bay,” Mr. Howell said, “the number of staff required in the polling stations on polling day would be around 63,” naming 20 polling clerks, 11 police officers, 10 presiding officers, eight field officers, another eight tally clerks, eight logistics personnel, one registering officer and one returning officer.
Although that total is 71 people, Mr. Howell said further staff “would be required for admin, logistics, training and transport, from the declaration of any election/referendum through polling day, to perform the count and for several days after the announcement of results”.
All would be needed to operate the usual 10 polling stations in West Bay’s four divisions, North West, with three stations; East, three stations; Central, two stations; and South, two stations.
Costs of the by-election were harder to estimate, he said, pegging the May polls at approximately $1 million, but pointing out that “some districts are significantly smaller”, varying the price. One polling station in West Bay, he said, was larger than the entire North Side area.
“It’s one of the things I am looking at now. We are engineering the costs because there is such a large range,” Mr. Howell said.
He indicated few limits on candidates able to stand for the by-election, saying it was open to “anyone who is able to be nominated”.
The controversy around Ms Rivers election qualifications involved her local residency and passport. West Bay Returning Officer Delano Solomon accepted Ms Rivers’s 27 March nomination, although he was not legally obliged to probe the documents.
Mr. Howell said “it’s too early for me to say” if Mr. Solomon would be re-appointed for the by-election.
Meanwhile, parties and candidates likely to contest the poll spent the week jockeying for position prior to Friday’s verdict.
Fifth-place finisher in West Bay on 22 May, the UDP’s Velma Powery-Hewitt, declared she would be the party’s candidate.
“Because I was the only one of the party that didn’t get in, I would go the for UDP seat,” she said. “The party wouldn’t put another person against me. I will be the candidate.”
Party chief McKeeva Bush was more cautious, however, saying he would wait for the court before moving.
“I will have something to say after the decision, and will wait to see what the chief justice says,” Mr. Bush said.
Mike Adam, George Town legislator and minister for community affairs under the previous UDP government, was cautious about whispers he might replace Ms Powery-Hewitt on the ballot.
“It’s too early to say. I am waiting for the outcome [in the court]. I will have to discuss this with my West Bay colleagues,” Mr. Adam said, naming Mr. Bush and fellow UDP legislators Capt. Eugene Ebanks and Bernie Bush, who himself said the group would meet before the court session.
During the July hearing, independent candidate Mervin Smith said he would run in any by-election, and has, meanwhile, retained the 22 May endorsement of his Coalition for Cayman supporters.
“Post-election, we are looking at the issues,” said coalition co-founder James Bergstrom. “We are not fielding one candidate. We still think Mr. Smith is the right guy and he still has our endorsement, but we are focusing on issues and analysis.” The “C4C” group was also scheduled to meet before Friday’s court verdict.
PPM leader and Premier Alden McLaughlin this week declined to comment on any candidates for either the West Bay seat or the Cabinet slot, saying “this is not something we are ready to address. We will address the matter when, and if, it becomes an issue.”
However, Dalkeith Bothwell and Capt. Bryan Ebanks, district PPM candidates in May, said they were willing to stand should the party ask.
“I love my country, but it depends on the decision of the party. I may not have done well enough to run again, but I would gladly run if asked to do so,” Mr. Ebanks said.
Woody Da Costa, top PPM performer in May in the district, did not respond to repeated efforts to contact him.
Finally, former West Bay UDP representatives Cline Glidden and Rolston Anglin, who also served as minister for education, rejected running for any available seat, both saying they were “moving on with their lives”.
After abandoning the UDP in December, subsequent to the arrest of then-Premier McKeeva Bush, and replacing his government with the newly founded People’s National Alliance, both Mr. Glidden and Mr. Anglin failed in the May election.
Mr. Glidden said he would join the Ogier legal team on 2 September. “I have made a commitment, so you can confidently say I am not going to be contesting by-elections. I am going to focus on my legal career. “I offered myself [for election] and have fulfilled any perceived public promises, so I have no guilt and no regrets,” he said.
Mr. Anglin was surprised by the question: “That is not something I am thinking about. I am thinking about the rest of my life, about moving on.”