Sowande Uhuru lashes HOA contract award system to fellow legislators
“This is a popular topic due to Honourable [Marlon] Penn’s [receiving permission to take up a] contract with the Financial Services Commission [FSC] recently voted on in the House of Assembly,” said Mr Wheatley in an exclusive interview with Virgin Islands News Online. Premier Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith brought a motion before the House at the last sitting that was passed on December 18, 2012; to allow Hon. Penn to take up a paid contract with the FSC.
Mr Wheatley described the system as one where legislators pardon their colleagues behaviour knowing the same privilege would be extended to them. “For instance, I have never seen so much unity between Government and Opposition as with this particular vote concerning this last vote in the HOA,” Mr Wheatley said.
He made it clear that he had publicly criticised this practice way before this current example. “Under the former Virgin Islands Party administration this was done for Honourable Vernon Malone, Honourable Vincent Scatliffe, and the current Premier, who was leader of the Opposition at the time," Mr Wheatley disclosed.
“I was opposed to it then, and I am opposed to it now,” he continued, “I believe representative Penn to be an honourable man, and in my view, bears the least amount of responsibility in this matter.”
Noting that it was abundantly clear that this is a regular occurrence in the House of Assembly, Mr Wheatley said, “I believe it is prone to abuse.” He suggested that Government should reconsider this provision in the constitution for a few different reasons.
“Firstly, I think that representation [in the HOA] is a full time job and it requires representatives’ full attention. There are many problems that need to be solved that require complete time, focus, and energy”. The commentator believes that there is enough talent and skills in the Territory to accomplish tasks without having to call on legislators. “Many of our people need employment, and legislators should leave the opportunities to them,” he added.
Where a lack of skills existed, he related, it is the job of our government to fill the gaps in the labour force through education and training. “Heaven forbid something happens to our legislators; various tasks must still be accomplished,” he offered.
Mr Wheatley also reminded that legislators campaigned for and accepted their job fully understanding the compensation they would receive. According to Mr Wheatley, Premier Dr the Honourable Dr. D. Orlando Smith stated recently that back benchers’ salaries were quite low and needed to be supplemented, “but I believe that rather than seeking other work, legislators should share information with the public concerning their compensation package,” he said, “If it is inadequate, I am sure that people will support raising it, but there are many people unhappy with the allowances representatives are receiving.”
Noting that he was open to correction, he said, I believe that some current legislators were even criticising the previous administration for the housing allowance; an allowance he said that the current administration restored after cutting it by $500 per member in the previous calendar year.
The budget estimates reveal that legislators receive tens of thousands of dollars of allowances every year, including entertainment, phone, office, and travel allowances. “When combined with their base salary, Representatives, who are not Ministers, receive close to $100,000 per year,” Mr Wheatley said.
He added, “Rather than comparing their salary to high paid Permanent Secretaries, Legislators should compare their salary to struggling single mothers making minimum wage. They have to live in this society too.”
According to Mr Wheatley, “This type of practice is prone to corruption.”
He felt it is unethical for legislators to award government contracts to entities in which any legislator has a financial interest. Even if the legislator in question does not participate in the decision, a “you scratch my back, and I scratch yours” culture can develop, Mr Wheatley argued.
“I think our legislators are out of step with the population with this provision in the constitution,” Mr Wheatley felt, “and they should protect the integrity of our political system by rectifying this as quickly as possible.”
Prior to the passing of the motion in the HOA, Third District Representative Hon. Julian Fraser RA noted that if his advice was asked regarding whether or not a member of the House should exercise their right under the provision, he would advise against it, but noted that it was only his belief and the right was provided for under the constitution and had been extended in the past to members. He added that it is a member’s prerogative to exercise this right at any time they wished.
Hon. Fraser further stated that he would not personally indulge in it because of the circumstances out there as a politician. Opposition Leader, Hon. Ralph T. O'Neal OBE was in full support of the motion.