Lawmakers’ debate turns into political fight

A Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly debate this week over changes to the public bidding rules turned into a political fight ahead of the May 2017 general election.

The Progressives-led government brought forward a long-recommended Procurement Bill, which was approved by lawmakers late Monday after some debate over what amounted to “political interference” in the public sector bidding process.

During the debate, East End MLA Arden McLean said the public often does not “speak of the other side of it” when discussing the need to separate politicians from the bidding process. He gave as an example a situation during the Progressives’ former administration (2005-2009) where he, as minister of works at the time, demanded that local aggregate providers reduce prices per yard for fill used to construct some local roads.

“Within two weeks, [the price] was down to $23 per yard [from $27 per yard],” Mr. McLean said. “We spent over $50 million on roads. You know what $4 a yard meant? Millions of dollars.

“You shouldn’t politically interfere? The responsibility lies on that front bench for the management of the funds of this country. Now if they steal it, that‘s a different matter, or [if] they interfere to get it over the cost it should be. But their job is to get value for money, so stop this about political interference. I don’t want to hear it.”

Education Minister Tara Rivers took exception to Mr. McLean’s statements.

“He claimed the need for political interference was needed in order to ensure that value for money was achieved,” Ms. Rivers said. “If that was always the case, then we certainly wouldn’t need this bill.”

Ms. Rivers pointed to the management of the Grand Cayman high schools project by the former United Democratic Party administration, particularly under former Education Minister Rolston Anglin, as an example of “what not to do” in public bidding projects.

“We can’t afford to have a repeat of what took place under the former minister of education,” she said. “We have real, serious examples of where political interference cost us much more.”

Mr. Anglin recently announced that he was running for public office again in West Bay, likely in the newly formed electoral district of West Bay South, where Ms. Rivers also implied recently she intended to run.

Mr. Anglin was sharply criticized in a 2015 auditor general’s report on the bidding process surrounding the John Gray and Clifton Hunter high schools’ construction after the initial project contractor, Tom Jones International, was dropped by the government in a legal dispute.

The auditor’s report stated: “The project resulted in the completion of only one of the three high schools originally planned, another two high schools being started but not completed, took over nine years, and cost $172.7 million, or almost double the initial planned costs.”

“What we had was nothing short of a complete fiasco,” Ms. Rivers said.

Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush criticized Ms. Rivers for taking shots at Mr. Anglin under parliamentary privilege in a Legislative Assembly meeting where the former West Bay MLA could not defend himself.

Mr. Anglin did defend his role in the management of Cayman’s high school construction projects during a 2015 Public Accounts Committee meeting, stating he walked into a “storm” when he took over the job – a “storm” left by the former Progressives government administration of 2005-2009. Mr. Anglin told the committee that he inherited a “ship that wasn’t just sinking, it was sunk,” after he was elected in 2009.

“The high school projects were in crisis and we went with a sole source and quite frankly, it saved the country millions of dollars in my view from a potential lawsuit with the former general contractor,” he said.

Mr. Anglin disputed the auditor general’s suggestion that Cabinet should have been provided with new details on full costs, design changes and completion date at the recommencement of the project.

“This idealistic and calm wording does not reflect the true storm, and the attendant pressures that existed at that time. We had legal and construction advice regarding the timeliness of a restart. We got as much data to Cabinet as possible within the time constraints,” Mr. Anglin said.