Hamaty: Past time for Liquor Board change

I read with interest an article published in the Aug. 5 edition of the Cayman Compass titled, “Liquor Board chair says he’s being targeted for removal.”

It is not so much that [board chairman] Mitchell Wells is being targeted for removal as he should have resigned or recused himself long ago, especially after he himself and two other members of the board declared a conflict of interest and walked out of the December 2013 session of the Liquor Licensing Board, forcing the adjournment of the session because of the lack of a quorum. Considering that a conflict is so obvious and so glaring (both Mr. Welds’ mother and son are liquor license holders themselves), it is equally obvious that his continued presence as chairman of the board serves to compromise the office itself. In fact, my attorney Clyde Allen, who attended the December 2013 meeting on behalf of Tortuga, made a statement to the board that because the chairman and the other two members of the board who had recused themselves had acknowledged that a conflict existed, it meant that all previous liquor license decisions that they were a part of could now be legally challenged. He also stated that all future decisions of the board could also face legal challenge.

It is an affront to the intelligence of all Caymanians for Mr. Welds to merely shrug his shoulders and maintain that it is difficult to avoid conflict because the Islands are too small, when his immediate family members are directly involved in the liquor industry. Where direct conflict exists, a presumption of prejudice is immediately raised (whether real or perceived), and in any other country would result not only in an investigation but a call for the chairman’s resignation. I agree with a call for further enquiries and investigation into the issues raised by the internal report from the Department of Commerce and Investment and would urge the ruling members of government to show the courage and political will necessary to address the issues that arise from an enquiry.

It could never have been the intention of the framers of the Liquor Licensing Law for any one person to dominate a position on the Liquor Licensing Board for in excess of 25 years and sit as chairman for 12. In fact, Section 4 (3) of the Liquor Licensing Law (2000 Revision) states that members of the board, including the chairman, shall be appointed by the governor and shall hold office at his pleasure for such period not exceeding five years as the governor may determine and who are eligible for reappointment. The definition section of the Liquor Licensing Law states that “governor” means “governor in council.” Governor in council refers to the leader of government business and the Cabinet of the sitting government, so Mr. Welds has sat as chairman for 12 years under both the UDP and PPM administrations.

The fact that the law expressly refers to a maximum period of five years is proof that it was never intended that service on the board was to be perpetual. The question that needs to be asked is whether Mr. Welds has ever been formally reappointed by the governor in council (the leader of government business and the Cabinet of the ruling party). If not, can it not be said that his position as chairman is invalid?

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Thirty years ago, when my wife and I started Tortuga, the Hon. Lem Hurlston, Chief Secretary, was then chairman of the board; thereafter, magistrates were appointed, followed by the first justice of the peace 12 years ago. The intent of the law was to have someone with legal knowledge chair the board. Following recent court decisions, there has been a call for JPs to get some form of legal training because of the nature of their responsibilities. I think it is time to revisit the tenure of the chairman and indeed all board members. This is not about Mr. Welds personally, but the office of chairman itself, and a desperate need for confidence in it to be restored.

Considering the obvious conflict, I believe the proper thing for Mr. Welds to do is to resign; failing which, the powers that be should thank him for his years of service and ask him to step down. What concerns me, as well as many license holders, is that there are many young Caymanian attorneys qualified and talented and worthy of a JP appointment, who have not been considered by the UDP or the PPM for the role of chairman.

The liquor industry in the Cayman Islands is a significant player in the economy and an essential stakeholder in tourism. It creates many jobs, the trickle-down effect of which can be seen in the growth of huge hotels, restaurants, party boats, liquor stores and warehousing delivery, just to name a few. It is important that the members of the public and the primary stakeholders have confidence in the impartiality of the decisions of the board. As it stands now, that confidence is woefully lacking.

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