After serving more than a dozen years as chairman of the Liquor Licensing Board of Grand Cayman, Mitchell Welds has been replaced in that position as part of government-ordered appointments that create a new liquor board with more members.
Along with Mr. Welds, former board members Tammy Welds, Neil Bryington and Bernice Richards have been replaced by new members, leaving only Noel Williams – the board’s former deputy chairman – as a member.
Mr. Welds said Thursday that he had received a letter recently thanking him for his service on the board, but said he was unclear as to whether the letter specifically stated that he would no longer be on the board. He declined to make further comment.
The new board chairman, Campbell Law, is a corporate manager with the firm Higgs & Johnson. He referred requests seeking comment on his appointment to the Ministry of Commerce.
Commerce Minister Wayne Panton said Thursday that there had been a “perceived lack of confidence” in the former liquor board and that the changes decided by Cabinet were aimed in part to restore that confidence.
Mr. Panton said Mr. Law would be viewed as neutral and without conflict regarding liquor board matters. He denied that Mr. Welds was being replaced for political reasons.
“The fact that Mr. Welds wasn’t changed immediately in the change of the government [following the May 2013 elections] is a reflection of our position that we were not a government that would make those changes simply because we were in office.”
The minister also pointed out that the ruling government waited until changes to the Liquor Licensing Law were made in late 2015 before changing the membership of the board. He said the government was more interested in getting the liquor licensing system correct than in changing the names of board members who would oversee it.
The new board deputy chair is Woody DaCosta, a local radio talk show host and political candidate in the 2009 and 2013 general elections.
Other appointed members are Mr. Williams, Magalyn Robinson-Clarke, Wayne Kirkconnell, Ralph Lewis and Phillip Tatum. In addition, there are three civil service directed appointments to be made by the director of the Department of Commerce and Investment, the director of Planning and the director of Environmental Health. Those directors can either serve on the board themselves or appoint a designate.
All appointment terms to the Liquor Licensing Board of Grand Cayman are for four years. The terms began effective Jan. 1, 2016.
Conflicts of interest
A controversy erupted in September 2013 over the membership of the Liquor Licensing Board, which directs the award of liquor, music and dancing licenses in the Cayman Islands. Several local liquor business owners alleged that conflicts of interests existed among board members, including Mr. Welds and Mr. Bryington, who either had family members in the liquor business or who owned liquor licenses themselves.
In August 2014, Mr. Welds told the Cayman Compass that he believed an effort to replace him was under way within the civil service hierarchy.
“I have good reason to believe there are certain people in the industry who want me off the board,” Mr. Welds said during an interview with the Cayman Compass at the time.
Mr. Welds had been on the liquor board for more than three decades, serving as chairman since 2002.
Mr. Welds’s comments were made after the Compass obtained an internal staff report by a member of the Department of Commerce and Investment, which was reported in a 2014 newspaper article.
“Findings [of the staff review] show that there has been a clear abuse of power and broad, sometimes wrongful interpretation of the law [by the liquor board],” the report stated in one of its five recommendations. “The consequences from such practices can be catastrophic if ever challenged in a court of law, leading to potential lawsuits and judgments against the department, resulting in monetary remunerations.
“The law has to be rewritten to not give ultimate power to an individual and a better system of monitoring has to be put in place. Succession planning should be high priority as well. An extended term on the board leaves room for extended duties not in line with the law.” Another recommendation stated that board members should provide full disclosure with regard to everything concerning liquor licensing decisions.
“The possibility of corruption is greatly reduced when there is an open forum,” the report states. “The chairman should have very limited, if any, discretionary powers at all when it comes to liquor licensing matters.”
Following that review, which was never confirmed as an “official” report by the department itself, changes to the Liquor Licensing Law were made by the Legislative Assembly. Those changes took effect Jan. 1.
Among the major changes in the Liquor Licensing (Amendment) Law, 2015, are requirements that every business owner who applies for a liquor license must first be the holder of a Trade and Business License. Grandfathered license holders are given up to a five-year grace period before they are required to comply with the legislation.
If someone sells liquor without having a valid trade and business license, they can be fined up to $10,000 upon conviction. Trade officers with the Department of Commerce and Investment will be given the same powers as police constables in investigating such instances. The new requirement aims to stop the practice of individuals holding on to liquor licenses they are not using and then selling them at unregulated prices to the highest bidder.
In addition, the legal changes altered the membership of the Grand Cayman board from five to 10 members. The board appointments made recently represent the first appointments under the revised legislation.
Mr. Panton said that, as of Jan. 1, the existing moratorium on liquor licenses had expired. He said another moratorium would only be enacted if approved by Cabinet members and can legally only apply for a fixed period.