ST. EUSTATIUS--The appeal filed by the Executive Council against the decision of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations to impose higher supervision on St. Eustatius was heard Friday.
An advisory board of the Dutch government met with Commissioners Reginald Zaandam (United People’s Coalition, UPC) and Astrid McKenzie-Tatem (Progressive Labour Party, PLP) and ministry representatives in the conference room at Old Gin House.
Dutch Government Representative Gilbert Isabella and Hyden Gittens and Manus Twisk of Committee for Financial Supervision (CFT) were also called to be heard. Island Governor Gerald Berkel, Island Secretary Koos Bartelds, Island Council Members Richelline Leerdam and Clyde van Putten (both PLP) and Frini Adelka Spanner and Nicolaas Sneek (both Democratic Party, DP) were among the audience.
The Ministry’s standpoint is that the Executive Council is not admissible in the case since the instruction for the supervision was given to the Government Representative and the interests of the Executive Council are therefore not directly affected.
Commissioner McKenzie refuted this by pointing out that the letter was addressed directly to the Executive Council. A letter was sent separately to the Government Representative the day after. Moreover, the supervision means that all Executive Council decisions have to be shared with the Government Representative without delay, so the Council is directly affected.
McKenzie motivated the appeal in emphasizing that the consecutive phases of the procedure to come to an instruction like this were not followed by the Ministry. Instead, the supervision was imposed quite abruptly.
She also pointed at various inconsistencies in the Ministry’s motivation for the supervision on the basis of financial mismanagement. The appointment of a new investment officer without prior approval is an issue that the previous responsible Commissioner has already admitted was a result of misjudgement on his part. It can therefore not be used as justification for supervision, since it was not part of a pattern and did not happen again, according to McKenzie.
The appointment of her brother in another position did not go through, which McKenzie used to illustrate that the system of checks and balances actually works and does not require higher supervision.
Zaandam emphasized that no law was broken by any staff appointment and that if this turns out to be the case, the Governor and Government Representative are just as much to blame, because they were part of all procedures.
McKenzie concluded that the decision to impose supervision was based on arbitrary, subjective conclusions, while it makes it more difficult to actually remedy the situation.
Later, she also stated that there is no identification of what the actual problems are that need to be solved. “Is there a file? What are the points?" she asked.
She also stated there are solid agreements with CFT that work well. “So why is this supervision necessary? It is premature,” she maintained.
The Ministry denied that the decision came out of the blue and stated that expertise and manpower had been offered to the Island Government on several occasions. It was said that there was no boycott of Statia, as McKenzie had mentioned, but “We do not feel to discuss other matters while the efficiency of the island’s administration is not in order,” said Director Kingdom Affairs at the Ministry of Home Affairs Erwin Arkenbout. The multi-annual plan, however, has been put on hold, he admitted.
He gave the high staff turnover and resulting lack of continuity as an explanation for the observed financial inefficiency and made a reference to the dismissal of the Head of the Finance Department. McKenzie explained that he was not sent away, but his contract had expired.
In summarizing, Arkenbout said the problems had grown so out of hand that these could not be solved without external assistance and concluded that imposing supervision was a matter of drawing the line. This far and no further,” he said.
Chairman Spijk wanted to establish if the imposition of higher supervision was in keeping with the principles of good governance. He tried to establish if supervision had been imposed abruptly or whether the Ministry of Home Affairs had tried to warn the island and gave it the chance to avoid it.
Zaandam stated that the recent meeting with Secretary-General Richard van Zwol could not be described as a consultation, since Van Zwol simply announced what his advice to the Minister was going to be. Arkenbout denied that such was the nature of that meeting.
Spijk also wanted to know why the existing process with CFT had to be cut short by this wider, more general supervision and why a more limited, custom-made measure could not have been found. Arkenbout asserted that a “robust measure” was the only way out of the problems.
Isabella explained how a Steering Committee was put together as per Minister Plasterk’s instruction, with the Commissioners included as members. However, they refused to participate with only the Governor and Island Secretary attending meetings.
Zaandam explained that logic dictates that Commissioners cannot take part because the Steering Committee is the result of a decision they have appealed. “Participation would mean acknowledgement of its legitimacy,” Zaandam said.
Isabella said an action plan has been put together and sent to the Minister. For the financial aspects an experts committee was created, which will submit a financial management plan next week. This plan will then be incorporated into the overall action plan. Plasterk has set January 1, 2018, as the date for completion of the action plan.
Spijk asked the CFT representatives why they did not take steps to get Statia’s financial situation improved, despite recognizing the signals that things were not going in the right direction.
Gittens replied that they did advise the Executive Council to put a ban on new financial obligations. He also stated that CFT had said that if there would be no balanced budget by July 18, they would “most probably” issue the advice to the minister to impose prior supervision.
Zaandam and McKenzie both said that when they asked the Ministry for consultation and support, they were consistently referred to Isabella, who then referred them on to the Steering Committee, which they both considered not very helpful or constructive.
McKenzie explained that a local financial committee had also been put in place to help with the budgets and financial reporting. The concept budget amendment will be ready next week, she added. “There obviously is progress,” Spijk concluded.