EBENEZER ESTATE, St. Maarten - I am standing in line -or rather in a disorganized congregation of desperate souls- in the parking lot of St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport, once the second busiest airport in the Caribbean, now a shell of sheetrock, concrete, metal and glass; the main terminal building is completely gutted. My partner is some feet away, seeking shelter from the searing mid-day sun in the shadow of a delivery van flipped unto its side, all its windows blown out and its bonnet lying across the street. On the van’s bent fender a parrot is inexplicably perched, ogling the some one-thousand people filling the parking lot with desperate chaos, trying, like us, to evacuate ourselves or our loved ones out of St. Maarten. The island is still reeling from the one-hundred and eighty-five mile per hour winds and subsequent civil unrest brought upon by one of the strongest hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic, a storm with a name that will live on in infamy in the collective psyche of every Caribbean community from Barbados to Cuba; Hurricane Irma.
Dutch Marines are handing out hot bottled water to people congregated in different sections: one section for US citizens with US Embassy staff running around with clipboards; one section for Dutch Citizens evacuating to Curacao and then onwards to the Netherlands on military transport aircraft; one section with EU Citizens, getting pink and then purple under the blazing Caribbean sun and looking wide eyed at the destruction around them; and us, desperate Caribbean Nationals (Michelle is Jamaican and was visiting me on Sint Maarten) trying to find word on whether people will be evacuated to Antigua and then onwards to Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Kitts…anywhere. We are all Caribbean Climate Change Refugees.
A week before, as holidaymakers were disembarking their flights on jet bridges now twisted like foilpaper, a low-pressure system started to develop off the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic. Three days later, as cruise ship passengers meandered out of the Majesty of the Seas unto Front Street, our main tourism center, that low developed into Tropical Storm Irma. By the next day, when she hit unusually warm sea surface temperatures not far from the Lesser Antilles, Irma became a Category Three storm. The day after that Category Five, intensifying more rapidly than any other storm on record. Tomorrow the Majesty of the Seas will be docking here again, not to have her passengers buy jewelry and electronics on Front Street but to evacuate three thousand people off of the island. Besides, the jewelry and electronics were looted clean even before the storm stopped raging.
Irma struck on Wednesday morning. The day before Marine Park Staff helped to secure various boats in the Simpson Bay Lagoon. We tied our patrol boat down and together had what we knew would be our last cold beer for a while. Predictions weren’t looking good. While we hoped that Irma would head north the various weather models had the storm hitting us directly. We knew we were in for trouble. We secured our houses, bought our last supplies and hunkered down. By four on Wednesday morning Michelle and I, two dogs and a cat were riding the storm out in our guest bedroom, then kitchen, then guest bedroom again; the pressure popping our ears and the concrete building shaking as if in an earthquake. The storm humming and sucking like a living, breathing, thing, a thing upset at the very presence of humanity. At one point our ceiling flexed as if being pushed and pulled from above. At six the eye passed and we fled to our downstairs neighbors. Our windows blew out and ceiling caved in. By twelve the storm was done. As I stepped out on our balcony and witnessed the destruction I thanked God; we were lucky to be alive. Ninety percent of all buildings were flat. Not a single leaf was on a tree, and hundred-foot ships lay across the street as if placed there by a giant child playing Battleship. St. Maarten had been decimated.
Unfortunately this will be the increasing reality of our situation here in the Caribbean. This paradise of fun and merriment, of frozen beverages and beautiful beaches, of music and sunscreen, will increasingly be faced with disasters brought upon us by a warming climate. As industrialized nations discuss and meet and hold Fora and COPs deliberating the consequences of a warming earth, as the US President withdraws from the Paris Climate Accords (while ironically having a house on French Saint Martin that was completely obliterated by Irma), as the world struggles with our addiction to fossil fuels and their impact on the climate, we are trying to put the pieces of our lives back together as Caribbean People. We are trying to adjust to the New Normal: to our new status as Caribbean Climate Change Refugees.
Barbuda, where I did fieldwork surveying the health of their coral reefs just a few months ago, has been declared uninhabitable; the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda ordering mandatory evacuations off of the island. A whole community displaced because of the effects of climate change. Anguilla, one of the wealthiest islands in the Caribbean, has been leveled and Necker Island, home of billionaire Philanthropist Richard Branson, has been destroyed. And, as I write this, a lady is washing her two children in brackish well-water. Adversity brings equality.
In the aftermath of the storm local governments, especially on Sint Maarten, struggled to control law and order and the island descended into lawlessness. First people looted water and food, and then they emptied out electronic stores, jewelry stores, anything. I saw one guy dragging his barely clad children behind him with three flat screen TV’s on his head. The island likely will not have power fully restored for months. Rumors spread like wildfire of armed gangs pillaging whole neighborhoods, emptying hotel rooms, robbing at gunpoint. Whether true or not the news spread around the world and our island will be eternally scarred. People have been frantically waiting for a government in disarray to feed and water them. The Dutch Military has arrived to restore law and order, placing us under martial law. There are now armed marines patrolling streets that, just a week ago, were lined with bars, restaurants and strip-joints.
While working in the conservation field we have been continuously preaching sustainable development to Caribbean Governments. We have been advocating a structured social welfare system, a sustainable economic plan not totally reliant on tourism, and the protection and management of our natural resources. Resources like coral reefs or mangroves, which not only provide goods and services like tourism and fisheries, but which also protect our vulnerable coastlines and critical infrastructure from the damaging effects of hurricane storm surge. Because of the decline of both coral reefs and mangroves and because of Irma’s unabated twenty foot storm surge I have had to do a diving survey of the Simpson Bay Lagoon earlier today. There is a sunken boat every five meters. The water is more diesel than salt. We will be diving again tomorrow to see if there are any bodies to recover.
Long time neglect by most Caribbean Governments of their natural areas has reduced the ability of island ecosystems to be resilient enough to recover from disasters; to allow for the nature of these islands to return to its beauty, the reason why tourism is so popular on all of the islands hit by Irma. Our islands are now changed. Forever.
We are at the head of the line now. We have said our hurried good-byes, tearful and fearful, wondering when and where we will see each-other again as Michelle is hurried away by the Dutch military to her waiting evacuation aircraft. As I stay and watch the tiny plane leave for Antigua two women are chatting about which school in the Dominican Republic they will now have to send their young daughters to since all schools on the island are damaged. A few feet away, in the shade of the upturned delivery van where just an hour ago we sought shade, two of the girls are trying to teach the parrot to say a word. As I walk towards my truck I hear it squawk “Irma”.
PHILIPSBUEG, St. Maarten - At the end of every school year, students are evaluated and promoted or not promoted based on their performance during the year. Conversely, at the end of a parliamentary year, Members of Parliament are not evaluated yet they continue in parliament without anyone questioning their achievements, their performance or their competency to function as a parliamentarian.
I have observed that in several countries around the world, political and interest groups are developing report cards for parliamentarians. The idea behind the report card is to provide the public, especially the voters, with information about the performance of a parliamentarian so that at the next election, voters can make an informed decision about who is best suited to represent them in parliament, based on their performance during the past years.
I sincerely hope that MP Ardwell Iron’s proposal to report on how Members of Parliament voted during a parliamentary year will be included in the 2016-2017 Parliamentary Report. If included, it will give the public additional information as to how our MPs are functioning.
SMCP is developing a parliamentarian report card that will comprise the following benchmarks: attendance, participation, representation, supervision, legislation and interaction. These six benchmarks are derived from the job description of a parliamentarian that, according to our constitution, consists of three main functions: representation (art. 44), legislation (art. 82, 85, 86) and supervision (art. 62, 63, 64). Since the people (voters) placed their trust in a parliamentarian by electing him/her to office, it goes without saying that they should know how their parliamentarian is functioning. Therefore, let us look at these benchmarks and explain briefly what each one entails.
Attendance at meetings is the most obvious and objective benchmark. It includes the attendance at the plenary sessions of parliament and at the meetings of the central committee. All MPs are required to attend these two meetings. In addition, we will also include the attendance at the permanent and ad hoc committees, which is a requirement for the members of these committees but is voluntary for the other parliamentarians.
It seems as if parliamentarians do not realize that the greater part of their work occurs in the small or standing committees. These committees are therefore the backbone of parliament. In a press conference given the first week of January 2017, President of Parliament, MP Sarah Wescot-Williams, told the press “the work of Parliament is being slowed down due to the lack of activity by the parliamentary committees”. In other words, she is saying that these committees are not functioning.
Parliamentary Committees do the groundwork for the Central Committee. They research and investigate issues and laws then make recommendations to the Central Committee, which in turn will eventually, approve these recommendations and send them to the plenary session of parliament. In addition, most of the oversight work by parliament ought to be done in the standing committees. There is where the chair and members review the policies and the decisions of a minister or the government as well as investigate reports, complaints and problems related to a ministry or the government. Further, there is where questions directed to a minister or the government ought to be formulated and the answers reviewed for depth, thoroughness and accuracy.
Sadly, previous Annual Parliamentary Reports and observations during the current parliamentary year show that the standing committees hardly ever meet. During 2016-2017, twelve standing committees were installed but as far as we know, only two of these committees actually held meetings, namely the Ad Hoc Integrity Committee and the Petitions Committee. The remaining committees have remained dormant throughout the parliamentary year.
We would also like to point out a serious flaw in the selection of the chairpersons of the various standing committees. Members of the coalition chair all twelve standing committees. No wonder that the supervisory function of parliament is seriously compromised. One does not expect a coalition member in parliament to readily scrutinize and criticize the policies, decisions and performance of his/her coalition partner in the government. For example, with all the problems surrounding the Ministry of Justice, the Chairman of the Committee of Justice, MP Frans Richardson, never felt the need to call a meeting of this Committee. Further, with all the problems associated with the dump, the Chairman of the Committee of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure, MP drs. Rodolphe Samuel, never called a meeting. The same goes for all the other standing committees.
Under the topic of attendance I would like to mention here that it is unacceptable that mature, honorable Members of Parliament still have to be chided by the President of Parliament for being absent at meetings without due notice. With today’s plethora of technology – and mind you our MPs receive a smartphone at the beginning of their term of office – it is inexcusable that an MP still does not care to inform the President in a timely manner of his/her absence.
So, with regard to attendance, an MP’s report card will summarize his/her absence or presence, with or without notice at all meetings. But the attendance score related to the standing committees will weigh much heavier than the attendance at the other parliamentary meetings.
In the following article, we will elucidate the other five benchmarks of the MP Report Card!
PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten - I would like to commend Member of Parliament, the Honorable Ardwell Irion, for presenting a proposal to Parliament that would make MPs more accountable and transparent, particularly towards their voters and the public in general. In the next Annual Parliamentary Report, we should be able to see how each MP voted on a law or a motion.
I also concur with MP Irion that Parliament’s website also needs upgrading. In March of this year, I submitted a letter to the President of Parliament, the Honorable Sarah Wescot-Williams, with several suggestions as to how to make Parliament’s website more informative and user friendly. I am pleased that the President of Parliament took my letter and the suggestions seriously. She has informed me by letter that the upgrading of the website is a priority for the Presidium of Parliament and that my suggestions will also be given consideration. Thank you Madame President! I am looking forward to being able to make use of the upgraded website in the very near future.
Besides MP Irion, the President of Parliament is the only other member, in the current parliament, who has presented proposals to improve the integrity, transparency and accountability of parliament. She has proposed to have parliamentarians disclose all of their functions, and not just only their government related functions. This means that parliamentarians would have to disclose their companies, their businesses and their part-time or side-jobs. According to the President of Parliament, such disclosure of functions should eventually lead to parliamentarians also having to disclose their finances at the beginning of their term of office. These proposals have not been welcomed with enthusiastic cheers from several other parliamentarians but instead have been stalled by the posing of questions, the postponement of meetings and the regular procrastination tactics. When former MP, Cornelius de Weever chaired the very first meeting of the Ad Hoc Integrity Committee of Parliament in March 2015 all parliamentarians agreed that establishing a Code of Conduct was a major priority for the Committee. Sadly, some two and half years later, the Committee has not yet been able to come up with a draft Code of Conduct for Parliament. I guess the concept of “priority” has a different meaning in parliamentary circles.
If parliament were to set the example and the tone concerning integrity, I am sure that it would be able to demand a higher standard of integrity from government, the civil service and even from the community at large. But, people know that the work ethics of our parliamentarians leave much to be desired. Regularly, parliamentarians do not show up to meetings. Often there is no quorum, which then results in having to reschedule the meeting. Do Parliamentarians consider the guilders wasted due to the cancelation of a meeting? People also see through the grandstanding that many parliamentarians have only skimmed the documents and have not prepared themselves properly for the meeting.
In carrying out its two core functions, namely initiating laws and supervising government, our parliament has certainly been found wanting. Since 2010, not one law, initiated by Parliament, has been passed. Other than meetings called to give government a vote of non-confidence, Parliament hardly calls the government or a minister to give account regarding a certain decision taken or action executed.
When Parliament accepts that one of its members does not attend parliamentary meetings for months without a valid reason, but still gets paid, this is also sending a message of approval to all the ghost civil servants that it is okay to stay at home and still collect a salary. Unfortunately, our constitution permits a parliamentarian to stay, uninterruptedly, outside the country for eight months. This may be legal, but it is definitely not ethical or moral. When parliament upholds such a practice then parliament cannot but condone this practice among the many ghost civil servants who are still collecting their salaries. Neither would Parliament be in a position to question a minister concerning civil servants who are on long leave of absence with pay, pending an investigation. I notice that the constitution of Anguilla has a pretty stiff penalty for absent parliamentarians. A member of the Anguillan House of Assembly who is absent for three consecutive meetings without giving prior notice to the Speaker of the House must vacate his/her seat. If we had such a law or regulation in place, several parliamentarians over the years would have lost their seats.
What about all the reports submitted by the High Councils of State i.e. the Advisory Council, the General Audit Chamber and the Ombudsman? These reports offer Parliament ample information and advice to be able to carry out its supervisory role. Sadly, Parliament has never used them. We also note that over the years, Parliament has given government many instructions via the numerous motions that were passed. Yet government has never taken them seriously. This makes Parliament look like an institution with no power at all. We need our Parliament to set the standard regarding integrity and good work ethics. It is time for parliament to start raising the bar!
PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten - Prior to the election on September 26, 2016, two expressions dominated politics and the news, namely “ship-jumping” and “electoral reform”. Electoral reform was the reason for the fall of the Marcel Gumbs Government in 2015. Electoral reform led to the snap election that was scheduled for February 9, 2016. Electoral reform was also the reason why this election was cancelled, because the honorable Prime Minister William Marlin insisted that his government needed more time to be able to initiate legislative reform in order to address the phenomenon of ship-jumping that was so prevalent among our parliamentarians. Finally, electoral reform was the reason, in my opinion, why his Excellency, Governor Holiday, collaborated with Prime Minster Marlin to shift the election date from February 9, 2016 to September 26, 2016.
According to article 59 of the constitution, elections must take place within three months following the dissolution of Parliament. In my opinion and many others share this view, the Governor could have amended the dates in the original national decree so as to have them comply with the election ordinance. We must bear in mind that rescheduling the election date to September 26, 2016 came with a promise, made to the people of Sint Maarten, that prior to Election Day, legislation would be in place by which ship-jumping would be eliminated or at least curtailed to some extent!
But was Prime Minister Marlin really serious about electoral reform or did he underestimate the herculean task of getting a speedy approval, from the all the partners of kingdom for a constitutional legislative amendment, within a period of nine months? Note that when the Prime Minister was a Member of Parliament in 2012 he told the radio host of ‘People’s Voice’ that, “the time is too short to put something in place before the next elections in 2014. In other words, two years were too short a period to implement electoral reform. But in December 2015, when asked if nine months were not too short to get electoral reform passed by parliament his response was “the time period will indeed be short, but electoral reform can be completed in time for the elections … I am convinced that it can be done.”
Even though an Electoral Reform Commission was established and attempts were made to prepare the necessary legislation, Prime Minister Marlin was unable to live up his promise to eliminate or curtail ship-jumping by election day. However, one would have thought that the new government would have continued pursuing electoral reform so that by the time the next election comes, around in 2020, the desirable electoral changes would be in place.
To my great surprise, the Governing Program ‘Stability for Prosperity’, issued by the Red/White/Blue Alliance, has very little to say about electoral reform. On page 30, under ‘Upgrade Government Operations’ we it reads “initialize the process to enable students abroad to vote and legislate voting day procedure.” Not one word is said about eliminating or curbing ship-jumping. Am I confused? But wasn’t it so that the whole reason for the Governor, rescheduling the election to September 26th, was to give the Prime Minister more time to enable him to come up with legislation to tackle ship-jumping? Since the Prime Minister was not successful in getting the legislation passed prior to the election, shouldn’t we expect that the current coalition government would continue to work on getting the laws passed during their term of office? Unfortunately, the matter of electoral reform, specifically dealing with ship-jumping, has been totally ignored in the Governing Program and instead, has been replaced by trying to make it possible for students abroad to vote. This is a slap in the face of the people who went to the poles expecting that something would be done to eliminate or curtail ship-jumping. Ignoring the wishes of the people and failing to keep this campaign promise is terribly disrespectful and unethical.
Now, that the United Democratic Alliance has three years until the next election, in 2020, one would expect the Red/White/Blue Coalition to come up with comprehensive electoral reform that would include among other things: restrictions regarding ship-jumping, expanding voter eligibility to students and others abroad, amendments to the election ordinance such as full disclosure of all functions, amendments to the national ordinance registration and finances of political parties, amendments to the Rules of Order of Parliament, campaign reform to allow for a more equal playing field for parties during the campaign and voting day procedures.
Because the Kingdom government posed critical questions regarding the ship-jumping draft ordinance, it does not mean that Sint Maarten should drop this issue all together. We know what ship-jumping has done to our country during the last six years. We have experienced the political instability that comes with it and the stigma that it carries. We have also experienced the financial burden that it brings. Therefore, it is important that the Government take those critical questions and use them to develop sound legislation to curtail ship-jumping. Why not look at Julio Romney’s draft ordinance? It might help us take a fresh approach to electoral reform. Let us not wait until another wave of ship-jumpers is upon us.
PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten - Sint Maarten has probably made it in the Guinness Book of world records for having four integrity reports, within a period of fifteen months, written about the rampant corruption in government. These reports led to the writing of legislation to establish an Integrity Chamber. Sadly, after three years, four reports, and aborted integrity legislation, Sint Maarten still finds itself in a quagmire of corruption. As we write, several cases of corruption are being investigated by the prosecutor’s office such as, immigration fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion. In addition, our own General Audit Chamber has reported on the serious lack of transparency and integrity with regard to the appointments of directors and supervisory board members of government-owned companies and foundations. Furthermore, the Ombudsman in its annual reports has also referred to the lack of transparency and openness in government. And, I am certain that if the Integrity Chamber were established and functional many more corruption cases would be brought to light.
Of course, corruption is not only limited to Sint Maarten but is rampant worldwide and considered a moral cancer in every society. It is therefore the duty of every country and the responsibility of every parliament and the obligation of every government to put mechanisms in place to root out this moral cancer in society. It goes without saying that our parliament must set the example by, establishing a Code of Ethics for parliamentarians. Conversely, if government began to uphold its own laws and enforce existing laws, Sint Maarten would be able to reduce corruption considerably throughout the civil force and in society.
Corruption is “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. To get a clearer understanding of corruption, Transparency International, in its publication entitled “Anti-Corruption Plain Language Guide”, subdivided corruption into three broad categories namely grand corruption, petty corruption and political corruption. Words that come to mind when discussing corruption are money laundering, bribery, extortion or blackmail, nepotism, cronyism, patronage, favoritism, dishonesty, unfairness, gift giving, kickbacks, lack of accountability, integrity and transparency.
Transparency is about being open and shedding light on rules, plans, processes and actions. According to the National Integrity Action Organization in Jamaica, transparency is “knowing why, how, what, and how much. Transparency ensures that public officials, civil servants and board members act visibly and understandably, and report on their activities. And, it means that the general public can hold them to account. It is the surest way of guarding against corruption”. Based on the above explanation it is safe to conclude that there is definitely a lack of transparency in government in Sint Maarten.
In all of its reports, the General Audit Chamber has made reference to a serious lack of transparency and integrity in government. In other words, there is clear evidence of corruption in government. In its most recent report, entitled “Administrative Appointments Part-2, an audit into the legitimacy and integrity of administrative appointments of directors”, issued July 2017, the Chamber, once again, made mention of the lack of transparency by stating that “the lack of transparency and the associated lack of integrity regarding the appointment of directors, is worrisome”. The Chamber also clearly advised Parliament to call the minister, responsible for the lack of transparency, to account. In other words, Parliament is the entity that has the ultimate responsibility to deal with corruption in government.
During its first administrative audit, between 2014 - 2015, the Chamber mentioned that, of the 44 appointments to supervisory boards of government-owned companies and foundations, only 22 (50%) complied with the rule to have an advice from the Corporate Governance Council. Between 2015 and May 2017, when the Chamber checked into the appointments of directors of government-owned companies and foundations it found that, of a total of 23 appointments, only one appointment was done in accordance with the rules and in keeping with the principles of transparency. Mind you, only ONE!! This means that our honorable ministers themselves are guilty of breaking the law, when it comes to the appointments of directors and supervisory board members of government-owned companies and foundations.
We still can recall a few of the controversial appointments that made headlines such as the appointment of the supervisory board members of GEBE as well the appointments of the directors of TELEM, the Tourism Department and GEBE. It is sad to note that Parliament has never raised a question concerning the various appointments mentioned in the reports issued by the Chamber. Neither has Parliament raised a single question concerning the most recent appointment of the brother of the Minister of TEATT as Director of the Princess Juliana International Airport Holding Company. We were told that because of family ties the Minister of TEATT abstained from voting on this issue in the Council of Ministers. This was done to avoid the appearance of a form of corruption called nepotism. However, this does not absolve the Minister from nepotism, because the way the relationship between government and government-owned companies is structured a Minister is the share-holder representative and as such the Minister of TEATT is responsible for the airport and her brother is accountable to her.
Regrettably, with all the evidence available of corruption in government, Parliament has remained mum on the issue, whereas it is Parliament’s obligation to ensure that the various appointments occur, according to the rules and legal procedures, in an open and transparent manner.
COLE BAY, St. Maarten - I enjoy drinking beer. Nothing beats coming up from a dive doing research in the Marine Park or after a long day in the office, ordering an ice-cold beer, and downing it in just a few swallows. I also enjoy beer because it is in my genes, with my father being Belgian I have no choice, and I enjoy the complexity of flavors, the variety, the history and the camaraderie that goes into having a few beers with friends. I do not enjoy the headache the following morning when a few turns in to too many.
Unfortunately, on Sint Maarten, this enjoyment of beer is not guilt free, and by having a cold one after working in the sun for a long time I am contributing to the growing environmental issues on Sint Maarten.
With every cold brew I, and my fellow beer drinkers both resident and visiting, and there are a lot of us, am helping to compound the solid waste issue already critical on the island. Every year tons of glass from beer bottles, and other bottles not to mention, are being dumped on our landfill, growing it in size and contributing to the environmental impact it is having on our nature as well as the health issues it causes to our population. Unrecycled and untreated glass causes harm to wildlife as well as helps with the famous fires on the Philipsburg Landfill, the glass refracting and magnifying the sun and contributing to setting the dump on fire.
We are a tourism destination and some estimates suggest that during the peak of high-season, including on a day when there are numerous ship in port and considering some of the waste from the French Side being dumped on the Dutch Side (which is ironic since they do recycle glass) some half a ton of empty beer bottles are deposited on the landfill alone. This again highlights what the Nature Foundation and other environmental organizations have been calling for so long; a government supported and subsidized recycle program which makes sorting and recycling garbage mandatory. The two voluntary recycling bins in two neighborhoods are simply not enough.
The solution is not difficult, and we may have to partner with our neighboring islands to find it, but we need to do what we can to solve our issues on the island and not be lulled into the dangerous complacency that so often affects us.
And I look forward to that one day, on our island gem in the Caribbean sea, drinking an ice-cold beer completely guilt free and with the knowledge that I am not contributing to the environmental challenges of Sint Maarten.
PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten - It is nine in the morning and a purple dawn is rising with difficulty in the east while a strong ice-wind is blowing over the cold North Sea to the west. It is February 2008 and I am standing with fifty of my fellow Master students at the Volgermeer Polder, a former toxic waste dump for the city of Amsterdam. In front of us two million square meters of garbage and dangerous chemicals are being transformed into a natural reserve by engineers contracted by the city of Amsterdam. My professor, Dr. Joyeeta Gupta –a Nobel Prize Laureate- lectures on the process of changing a national health hazard into a viable natural reserve.
While listening to Dr Gupta speak I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between Volgermeer and our Landfill back home on St. Maarten. The Volgermeer polder, which is approximately ten kilometers north of Amsterdam, is an area of land saturated with dykes and streams and lakes. It used to be a peat farm, the peat used to warm beautiful Amsterdam throughout its history. At about the turn of the last century the city decided to get rid of its garbage at the polder, ferrying in mass amounts of waste on garbage boats and dumping it in the lakes and bogs which dot the area. As Amsterdam grew in size so did their garbage and soon the dump spread to immense dimensions. The area was plagued by fires caused by escaping gas and the residents in the area started to complain about their health: strange infections, respitory problems and diseases caused by the lowering of their immune systems. All of this sounded eerily familiar.
The city of Amsterdam closed the area in the eighties and sent teams of scientist to monitor and take samples of the soil and water. They soon found that dangerous chemicals that leaked into the soil and groundwater, chemicals such as Agent Orange, famous for being used in the Vietnam war, and PCBs –a pesticide that causes deformities in both animals and humans.
As we started our tour of the area a representative of the company that was involved in the project started to explain the process by which a waste dump was transformed into a nature reserve. The streams and lakes that are a part of the polder were dredged and the silt used to cover the dump to about two meters high. The city of Amsterdam also provided soil from its various building projects to cover the dump and a special layer of plastic-like organic material was placed on top, a process called natural capping. This material, which is widely used and quite inexpensive, allows for the gasses and fumes to escape while preventing further contamination to the area. On top of this layer peat moss and grasses were planted which eventually dissolved the garbage under it and in a few short years a viable ecosystem started to develop with clean water with fish and frogs and swans and ducks.
I started to think that perhaps this may be a solution for us here as well. Even with some of the advances that Sint Maarten has had regarding conservation in the last four years there are still three issues which blemish our reputation in terms of environmental protection. One is the need for a terrestrial park to protect and conserve our land-based flora and fauna; the second is the continued challenges faced by our wetlands; and the third, and this is by far the issue of most concern both for the health of our environment and that of our population, is the Dump.
With the amount of chemicals and garbage entering into our soil, wetlands and into our lungs when the dump is on fire we need to address the issue of the landfill yesterday. The heavy metals and other pollutants present on the Dump and the surrounding area are a national health hazard. A waste-to-energy plant is good and very necessary to mine the current landfill. But why not make it better? A waste-to-energy plant combined with a complete rehabilitation of the area, including that of the Great Salt Pond, which is the reason why Sint Maarten, our Soualiga, exists in the first place. If the Pond is dredged and the silt used, if the tons of soil from all of the projects current and planned are used to realize a sustainable solution for one of the most embarrassing scars on our island, then yes we will be at the vanguard of forward green thinking in this region. For it is only when we solve the issue of a landfill in our capital and in our natural and national heritage, can we speak of sustainability.
I remember the tour being over and having to return to my tiny apartment in the city to prepare for the next day’s class. I remember how hard it was for me to focus because I couldn’t help but think how useful this would be for my home. Imagine a green park with paths and fountains and bird-watching blinds and swings for children where garbage once stank in the blazing sun and where flies and midges once made life miserable. Imagine it being the centre of the capital of a new St. Maarten; the fact that it was a dump a vague and unpleasant memory, like the memory of the taste of aloes on our sucking-thumbs as children. Imagine the Salt Pond, the cradle of our society, gently lapping at clean green shores. Imagine our grandchildren, students at our university, being lectured on how a dump was turned into a natural reserve. Imagine the lecturer, one of our children, winning the Nobel Prize for Science. Anything is possible under the Caribbean sun.
PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten - Today, two months after the new Council of Ministers was sworn in, we still do not have a Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Traffic and Telecommunication (TEATT). The blame for this has been placed on the vetting or screening process. However, in truth and in fact, the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of our parliament.
Now, the USP will have to present another candidate minister and the screening process will start all over again. We trust that it does not take another two months. Who is to tell, though, if this candidate will pass the screening, which is shrouded in a cloak of mystery! With the exception of the Governor and the Prime Minister, no one else seems to know, for sure, what exactly the criteria are for the screening of candidate ministers. We expect the Prime Minister to be transparent about this issue and to enlighten the candidate ministers, the political parties and the general public about the screening criteria, the procedures and how the final decision is made to pass or fail a candidate minister. SMCP believes that the screening criteria should be clearly established up front and that political parties should be aware of these before submitting the name(s) of their candidate minister(s) to the Formateur.
The obscurity as well as the insecurity surrounding the whole screening process could have been avoided, if parliament had taken the bull by the horns and dealt with the law pertaining to the screening some years ago. Take Curacao for example. Shortly after 10-10- 10, the Parliament of Curacao annulled their original screening ordinance and passed a revised one, in 2012. Nearly seven years after 10-10- 10, Sint Maarten is still using the original 10-10- 10 screening ordinance which is apparently outdated and full of flaws.
St. Maarten has a very short history, as far as vetting or screening of candidate ministers is concerned. It is unfortunate that the first three governments of Country Sint Maarten never underwent any serious screening. In its Integrity Report of 2014, the Bob Wit Committee clearly pointed out that the screening was a mess and even stated that the then Prime Minister as well as the Ministers were in violation of the law and could be 2 sentenced to a maximum of three years imprisonment. Seeing that governments were forming and falling so frequently, the Kingdom Government felt that they should step in to ensure, the much needed integrity in the government of Sint Maarten. Consequently, prior to the formation of the fourth government in 2014, the Kingdom Government issued a directive, instructing the Governor, to ensure that the screening of candidate ministers be done in a thorough manner. I believe that, if the Sint Maarten Government and Parliament had taken the screening process seriously from the beginning, there would have been absolutely no reason for the Kingdom Government to step in.
Almost seven years after 10-10- 10, Sint Maarten’s parliamentarians are still complaining about the screening, when all the while it was up to them to do something about it. Finally, after five years, a draft of the screening law, entitled “Ordinance Regulating the Integrity of (candidate) Ministers”, was officially submitted to Parliament, on January 20 th 2016, by then Member of Parliament, Dr. Van Hugh Cornelius de Weever. If parliamentarians were really concerned or dissatisfied with the screening, they would have been more zealous in seeing this law move from the Ad Hoc Committee of Integrity to the Central Committee and finally to the Public meeting where it would have been approved. It is good to note that when this ordinance was submitted, the members of the Ad Hoc Integrity Committee were: Sarah Wescott-Williams, George Pantophlet, Cornelius de Weever, Leona Marlin-Romeo, Frans Richardson, Maurice Lake, Franklyn Myers and Silvio Matser, who did not attend any of the three meetings that the Committee held. Regrettably, neither the Committee members nor the other parliamentarians did anything with the draft ordinance. They just sat on it and allowed it to accumulate dust. SMCP calls on parliament to handle this draft ordinance as soon as possible and ensure that it is transparent and fair to all concerned.
The next ordinance that Parliament should deal with immediately is the Ordinance Regulating the Integrity of Parliamentarians. The Bob Wit Integrity Committee also seriously questioned the integrity of our parliamentarians and made very pointed recommendations such as: establishing a code of ethics, making public all paid and unpaid side jobs, setting up a public registry to record all gifts accepted by parliamentarians, determining whether side jobs are permissible and if so reducing the salaries accordingly. The report also calls for parliamentarians to declare their assets, before and after taking office, as well as for the establishment of an Integrity Committee.
If parliament had followed up on the recommendations in Bob Wit’s Integrity Report, the screening of candidate Ministers would not be a big issue today and the integrity level within parliament would have been higher. SMCP is expecting parliament to work on these two ordinances as soon as possible.
PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten - One of the things we must give our Members of Parliament credit for is the large number of motions presented to and passed by Parliament. Since 2010, seventy-five motions were submitted, 22 were rejected and 53 were passed, according to the 2015/2016 Annual Report of Parliament. All in all, not bad for a young legislative body! Does the activity of presenting, discussing, rejecting or passing motions tell us something about the work of parliament? Yes, it does. It tells us that a lot of energy is put into writing, discussing and passing motions in vain. In other words, if no action ensues from all this activity, then our parliamentarians are engaging in an exercise of futility and in the process, they are wasting precious tax-payers’ money.
What is a motion? It is merely a petition, asking government to take action on a matter of concern to the parliament. However, if that petition is not a matter of concern for government at that time, then the motion is shelved and never executed. It seems to me that motions, submitted and passed in our parliament, only give the impression that our parliamentarians are working. But, if we follow the motion-trail, we will see that the majority of those motions go no further than the hall of parliament.
Unfortunately, this has been the fate of most of the 53 motions that our parliament has passed. What happened to the motion that was passed, three years ago, (January 16th 2014) that requested government to explore the possibility of acquiring land in Middle Region, to build a Community Center? And what happened to the motion passed on December 3rd 2013, requesting the Minister of Health Care, Social Development and Labor to carry out a survey to determine the level of a “living wage” for Sint Maarten and to report back to Parliament within sixty days? Unfortunately, sixty days have turned into more than 3 years and the living wage has not yet been determined. What happened to the motion, passed on March 17th 2016, requesting the Minister of General Affairs to prepare and submit a plan regarding mandatory services for youngster ages 18 through 25? This motioned was to go into effect as of January, 2017. We are now in February 2017 and to this day no plan has been submitted to Parliament. What about the motion banning the use of plastic bags? What about the motions passed in 2013, concerning the protection and preservation of our national/cultural heritage such as Fort Amsterdam and Mullet Pond? On October 22nd 2014, parliament passed a motion, instructing government to set up a Committee to study, evaluate, and recommend an action plan, based on findings and recommendations of the various integrity reports. Unfortunately, no time frame was given. We are now almost 1000 days further and Parliament has not yet received the Plan of Action.
Had Parliament followed-up on this motion, we would not have had the recent integrity chamber and quartermaster dispute between Sint Maarten and the Dutch Minister of Home and Interior Affairs. The deadlines for action on all these motions have quietly passed and there has been no action by Government and no follow-up by parliament. These are just a few examples, of how parliament passes motions that yield no results whatsoever. Regrettably, members of parliament never follow up or call out a minister or the government, on their blatant refusal to execute parliament’s motions.
So far, the only motions that parliament follows up on, are motions of non-confidence. It is amazing how quickly parliament ensures that these motions are expedited yet takes on a nonchalant and laissez-faire approach towards all the other motions.
Our parliamentarians really need to reconsider the issue of passing motions. They should make sure that the motions that they pass yield results. They should ensure that each motion answers the basic questions of who, what, why, when, where and how? Most of the time the answer to one of these questions is missing, especially the answer to when. Most motions do not have a time line or a target date, which is crucial, if parliamentarians intend to follow-up on their motions. If the date passes and a minister or government has not complied with the motion, then parliament should send reminders. If this does not work, then the minister or the government should be called to parliament to give an account. Failure to do so can lead up to a motion of non-confidence in the minister or the government. This is how parliament and individual parliamentarians should carry out their supervisory or controlling function over government. It is time that parliamentarians become proactive and make demands on government.
What about all the motions passed in parliament? Well, they are worthless if parliament does not follow up to ensure that they are executed. We trust that parliament will start doing its job!
Leader of the Sint Maarten Christian Party
PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten - All factions of the St. Maarten Parliament supported a motion that was submitted to the House on Monday January 30th 2017, during a plenary session. The meeting was called to discuss the appointment of a quartermaster for the Integrity Chamber by the Dutch Government. During the deliberations it became clear that the validity of the Protocol that was signed between Minister of Interior Affairs and Kingdom Relations and the Minister of Justice of St. Maarten in May of 2015 became questionable. What was also clarified at least to me was that, the protocol document that was established by the two aforementioned Ministers was contingent on an ordinance that was to be voted into law. The ordinance or law was to regulate or institute an Integrity Chamber for St. Maarten.
The third point disclosed by government was that the drafting of the Integrity Chamber law received input and support from the Dutch government. This draft ordinance was debated in the St. Maarten Parliament and subsequently passed by a majority vote in 2015.
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