Surveying the auditor general’s report on land management

The latest report from the Cayman Islands auditor general on government’s land management practices covers so much topical ground that we believe it may be instructive to provide some focused analysis.

The report, titled “National Land Development and Government Real Property,” is split into three distinct sections, addressing 1) government’s regulation of private development generally; 2) government’s management of its own property assets; and, 3) government’s performance in relation to major private developments that involve the public sector.

On the first subject, the auditor general found that the government has been operating under a development plan from 1997 that has never been updated, although the law requires that the Central Planning Authority review the plan at least once every five years, for the purpose of proposing amendments. The auditor general also notes that the CPA (an appointed board that is chock-full of members who are involved in the development sector, and, accordingly, is beset with the continual appearance of conflicts of interests) routinely disregards recommendations from departments with technical expertise, such as the National Roads Authority and Water Authority, and often does not provide any rationale for the decisions it makes.

In this section, the auditor general dwells at some length on the effects that development has had in recent years on Cayman’s natural landscape, particularly in regard to wetlands and specific parcels identified as “sensitive areas” in the Vision 2008 project, which was not an official development plan.

This part of the report, we feel, could be interpreted to constitute “pro-environmental advocacy” (or even “anti-development bias”) on the part of the auditor general, which would be highly inappropriate. The auditor general must be vigilant that he does not appear to be trespassing beyond his remit into environmental or developmental issues based on personal predilections.

In the second section, regarding the government’s management of its own property assets, the auditor general found that the government does not maintain an adequate inventory and valuation of its properties, and owns hundreds of parcels, worth some $60 million, that it does not need.

This section flags the government’s purchase, at the direction of then-Minister of District Administration Juliana O’Connor-Connolly, of a piece of property in Cayman Brac for $125,000 – purportedly for affordable housing, though the appropriate agency was never consulted nor has the land since been used for that purpose. The auditor general notes “a possible breach of trust” by Ms. O’Connor-Connolly, who is now Speaker of the House.

Mr. Swarbrick said he would present the findings of his report to Cayman’s Anti-Corruption Commission – though, if Mr. Swarbrick believes, as his report states, that a corruption-related offense may have occurred, we cannot comprehend why law enforcement was not notified at the very moment of discovery.

Finally, in the third section, the auditor general examines the government’s handling of negotiations with the Dart Group on the so-called NRA Agreement and with Dr. Devi Shetty’s group on Health City Cayman Islands. The auditor general found that in both instances (dating back to then-Premier McKeeva Bush’s United Democratic Party administration), a handful of elected members played far too intimate of a role in negotiating with developers, when the proper actors should have been the civil service or even the Legislative Assembly as a whole.

It is important to note that neither Dart nor Health City are being accused of behaving improperly, and any suggestion of wrongdoing is resting squarely on the shoulders of elected members.

Indeed, our position is that the only downside to the Dart deal was that the entire arrangement wasn’t executed, including remediating the George Town landfill. Regarding Health City, no project in our memory involved more consultation – and support – from all elected members – regardless of their political persuasion or affiliation. Health City has the potential to transform Grand Cayman into an international mecca for healthcare and medical technology, and it is widely welcomed, accepted and applauded by the Cayman community.