An initial decision on which Cayman Islands government “surplus” properties would be put up for sale was made by the Progressives-led administration’s political caucus, a senior civil servant told lawmakers last week.
Planning Ministry Chief Officer Alan Jones told the Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee on Wednesday that the caucus group, which consists of all elected members from the Progressives government bench as well as senior party officials, had winnowed the 279 surplus properties to 69 identified as “likely” for sale.
Mr. Jones stressed that a final decision on which government lands would be sold remained, as per legal requirements under the Registered Lands Law, in the hands of Cabinet. He also told lawmakers that Lands and Survey department officials provided information to Progressives caucus members regarding the land’s use currently and what the parcels might be used for in the near to medium term.
“Ultimately, that decision [to identify the number of properties likely for sale] was taken by caucus,” Mr. Jones said.
“I’m shocked to hear that caucus has made decisions … that certain properties can be sold prior to the business case being made by the government on all properties,” said North Side MLA and Public Accounts Committee Chairman Ezzard Miller, adding that he did not know which 69 out of the 279 properties were for sale.
Earlier in the Public Accounts Committee proceedings, Deputy Governor Franz Manderson indicated that the Progressives’ policy of running Cabinet business through its political caucus first had certainly “made our Cabinet meetings flow very well.” Mr. Jones said the Planning Ministry agreed it seems a “sensible practice.”
Mr. Miller responded, “We cannot assume that a body that is not identified anywhere in the process of selling government’s property in the relevant legislation … we can’t simply acquiesce that that body has some authority to make these decisions because it doesn’t.
“I accept that no final decision [can be made by the political caucus]. But some people have knowledge which the public does not yet have that certain pieces of property in government are likely to be sold. When that goes beyond the persons charged under statute to have that information, I think one has to be a little bit concerned.”
A 2011 review by the government Lands and Survey department found that 279 parcels of Crown owned land – valued at about $60 million – were not being used in government operations. This information was reported in a 2015 audit by the Cayman Islands Auditor General’s Office concerning government land use.
“Some of these properties constitute a liability to the government as they have been encroached upon or used for dumping trash,” the 2015 audit found.
According to the audit report, the Ministry of Planning has been evaluating 279 properties, including the 69 considered “available for sale” and will be making recommendations to Cabinet regarding how government can dispose of the land.
“We noted that [government agencies] receive little direction as to what principles should be used to manage real property,” auditors reported. “We found no central manager in the government responsible for setting real property management policy overall.”
Mr. Jones said it was his belief that the winnowing process approved by caucus was more of an effort to eliminate from government’s consideration lands that were unlikely to be sold by government because they may have some use in the near future. When it is completed, a business case for the sale of the 69 Crown properties will deal with the particulars of those parcels. Mr. Jones said the business case was never expected to deal with every piece of surplus land government owned.
There is no legal requirement for any legislation, or any matter that comes before Cabinet, to first be considered by a political party structure, but Mr. Manderson noted this was a decision the current government had made at the start of its term.
Premier Alden McLaughlin previously explained that each Monday all members of the Progressives-led government meet and essentially decide what business will be carried forward on behalf of the government. Mr. McLaughlin said the caucus meetings put all elected members, whether the premier or a backbench member, on equal footing.
“In caucus, we all have equal voice and vote,” the premier said. “If [a proposal] has no support in caucus, the bill, the policy … does not go forward in the first place.
“The Cabinet alone, even if [a proposal] goes to the House, can pass nothing. In many ways, Cabinet is a formal process … the real decision-making is done in caucus.