Recommendations that government hold local planning board meetings in public and consider replacing board members with a conflict of interest, or restructuring the board itself fell on deaf ears, the Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee heard Wednesday.
Lawmakers raised a number of concerns during the committee’s review of former Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick’s land use audit from 2015, which looked at a number of areas, including how Cayman governs the application for and approval of public construction projects.
The Central Planning Authority of Grand Cayman and the corresponding Cayman Brac Development Control Board came under specific scrutiny by auditors who indicated board procedures were often opaque and that members were clearly in conflict with regard to certain projects.
Audit manager Martin Ruben told Public Accounts Committee members that government knew of auditors’ findings “very early” in the audit process – as soon as 2014.
A few weeks after the audit was released in mid-2015, all current members of both Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac’s planning boards were reappointed. Their meetings are still held in private, although detailed minutes are produced after those sessions.
“Government had this information very early and could have acted on it,” Mr. Ruben said. “Instead, they chose not to act on it, [contrary to] our recommendation.”
The management response in the audit report indicated that it was up to the planning boards to govern their own hearing procedures.
“You cannot have a committee that is an island unto itself,” George Town MLA Winston Connolly said. “There needs to be a critical review of the Central Planning Authority membership and its procedures as a result [of the auditor’s report]. I find it highly unacceptable to say, ‘oh, the chairman will set the rules.’ Absolute power, dot, dot dot …”
“I agree with that,” Deputy Governor Franz Manderson said.
New accounts committee chairman, North Side MLA Ezzard Miller, alleged that he had seen “many instances” where Grand Cayman’s Central Planning Authority made decisions “solely unto themselves” and in contravention of the territory’s Development and Planning Law.
“Who provides the checks and balances to ensure that the CPA is, in fact, following … the law?” Mr. Miller asked.
Committee witness and Director of Planning Haroon Pandohie said appeals of planning decisions can be made to the Planning Appeals Tribunal.
“Which is only done by the developer,” Mr. Miller opined.
Acting Auditor General Garnet Harrison said auditors hope the planning board’s deliberations will be done in the future in a “transparency environment.”
Mr. Ruben said the 2015 audit report raised issues of the makeup of the planning boards and that certain individuals on those boards had “greater opportunities” for conflicts of interest that posed a risk to government projects in certain cases.
“But that committee was just reinstated for a period of time,” Mr. Connolly said, “so there won’t be any movements for [the appointment period]?”
“That’s correct,” Mr. Ruben said.
Mr. Pandohie said he was not involved in the appointment of planning board members, who are ultimately decided by government ministers.
“Is there anything that prevents the Central Planning Authority from holding the meetings in their entirety in public?” Mr. Miller asked.
Mr. Pandohie replied that both the agendas and minutes of the board meetings are posted online. He said, in his opinion, a decision to hold open meetings would be “something for the board” to decide.