Editorial for September 16: Last call for Liquor Board?

For more than a decade, Mitchell Welds has been chairman of the Liquor Licensing Board of Grand Cayman and, for an equal length of time, practitioners in the spirits trade – be they bar owners, package store proprietors or distributors – have been grumbling about conflicts of interest. Make up your own mind:

Mr. Welds’s mother owns and operates an establishment in West Bay, called Joe Ena’s Liquor Store, that competes with stores regulated by the board her son chairs. 

Mr. Welds’s son, Simon Welds, operates a mobile bar business, also licensed and regulated by his father’s board.

Mr. Welds’s niece, Tammy Welds, also sits on the five-member Liquor Licensing Board. 

This tangle of interlocking interests and family members came into sharp focus last Thursday during the annual general meeting of the Liquor Board, resulting in three members (Chairman Welds, Tammy Welds and Neil Bryington) recusing themselves because of perceived conflicts of interest, leaving only two remaining board members who could not carry on business because they lacked a quorum.

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Consequently, nearly a dozen applications from liquor store owners seeking to have their operating hours extended to 10 p.m. went unheard.

The Compass has come into possession of a blistering letter to the Liquor Board from one of the applicants, Prentice E. Panton, a principal in Reflections, Food 4 Less and Liquor 4 Less. Mr. Panton alleges blatant conflicts of interest on the part of Chairman Welds. He writes he has “applied and reapplied for a change in [operating] hours for approximately 8 years now. For approximately the last two years, the chairman has refused to place me on the agenda for the whole board to consider, or even hear my case. Furthermore, I was turned down on about 6-7 other times, with no good reason ever given in writing, as the law states. It should be noted that we are asking for the same hours as his mother’s store …” 

Regarding regulations, Mr. Panton points to a hodge-podge of seemingly inexplicable practices throughout the island. Did you know, for example, that you can purchase distilled spirits (rum, gin, vodka, whatever) six days a week from one (but only one) gasoline station? Or that you can purchase both liquor and beer every day, including Sunday, from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., at a shop at the Treasure Island resort? Or that some liquor stores in some districts can stay open until 10 p.m. – but not in George Town, where they must close at 7 p.m.?

On Friday, the Department of Commerce and Investment, which is responsible for overseeing liquor licensing, announced it was “aware of unresolved issues, such as allegations of conflict of interest” on the Liquor Board and “is reviewing the legal and operational structure of the Liquor Licensing Board.”

It may be too late.

Several applicants are now questioning the validity of previous board decisions. One such applicant, Brian Barnes of Barnes Bartender Service, said he would file a lawsuit challenging board decisions dating back many years.

Given that Cayman has more than 100 regulatory boards, some populated with competitors of those who appear before them, Mr. Welds and his board may have inadvertently opened up a very full Pandora’s Box of potential lawsuits.

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  1. Approval of liquor licences should be on a case by case basis. But, if one is to attempt to apply fair competition through economic engineering, it must be rooted in sound policies and regulated by common law.
    Conflict of interest wither perceived or real could only take away from that objective.

    Freedom of information leads to transparency which should remove the cloak of special interest sometimes hidden under the guise of fair competition. This conflict of interest avoidance becomes even more difficult if the boards are heavily represented by a lone district.

    Remove the conflict of interest, but let the baby bells live..