Editorial — 04 December 2012

Perhaps lost in the usual roundup on the television news of Friday’s sitting of the House of Representatives was that the country will finally have an Ombudsman again, after almost a year without one. We don’t know enough to comment with authority about Cabinet’s pick for the post, 45-year-old Lionel Arzu. We can’t say whether he is the right choice. We pray he is.

But we are happy that the country finally has an Ombudsman. There are some who thought that we should have taken all the time we needed to get the right person – someone with the requisite “intellect, integrity, and motivation.” But, we daresay, a year was too long.

At the start of the current administration’s first term in 2008, they also went months and months without appointing an Ombudsman – it was as if they didn’t think it was important. They eventually appointed Cynthia Pitts, a retired public officer and attorney-at-law. Ms. Pitts appeared, to us, to have been an able Ombudsman.

It would appear, though, that government didn’t think so, because at the end of last year when her three-year contract had expired, they used a technicality to “hambug” her. Our understanding is that because she had not given the required three-month notice that she wanted her contract renewed, by the time she finally gave official indication she wanted to keep the job, the government refused to re-appoint her. And once again, the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months – and we were without an Ombudsman for damn near a year.

This is not a sexy post – but if a person is committed and up to the challenge, he/she can make a difference. An effective Ombudsman is there for those who need help the most in navigating the official delinquency and abuse that exist in a lot of government departments. Those in authority tend to abuse their authority. That’s how it’s been from time immemorial. The Ombudsman is there for those who have been wronged by those in authority. He/she is there to give protection and assistance to anyone in the public who has been discriminated against by officialdom.

The truth is, in the case of Pitts, the government had a right to move on, and install the person they really wanted in the post. And, at the same time, the public had a right to have the Office of the Ombudsman filled in the shortest possible time.

To their credit, the PUP, for almost the full two terms of their administration, had an Ombudsman in place, in the person of Paul Rodriguez, who, incidentally, was the UDP’s first Belize City mayor way back in 1975. Interestingly, we didn’t hear Her Loyal Opposition cry foul too loudly during all this time we were without an Ombudsman. Perhaps they did, and we just didn’t hear. That’s possible.

We suppose the PUP have signed off on Lionel Arzu, since we did not hear them object to his appointment. That’s nice. There is agreement between the two parties on something of consequence to the people.

When they next meet in Belmopan at the sitting of the House, which is scheduled for December 14, 2012, we would want to suggest to these honorable gentlemen and lady that they agree on making the Integrity Commission and the Public Accounts Committee operational – complete with the staff and teeth to bite any offending member of the National Assembly. Now that would be nice, extra nice, kind of like a December treat, before the usual bags of ham and turkey dispensed during this time by the elected officials.

The Integrity Commission is a joke, has been a sick joke on the masses of the people, for as long as it has been on the law books. The same holds true for the Public Accounts Committee. It’s a crude joke on those at the base of the pyramid, a joke that works, oh so well for the ringmasters in both political parties.

30 years since Independence, and PUDUP have gotten equal shots at the pie (three times in government each), and they both have not done anything to make the Integrity Commission robust, or the Public Accounts Committee functional. In the case of the Integrity Commission, both parties have not installed anyone in the Commission with the independence to investigate the rapacious culprits in high office.

From time to time the net worth of a few politicians who bother to file their declarations are published in the Government Gazette, a publication only the most bureaucratic souls peruse – tucked ever so neatly away from the ordinary public’s view. Incidentally, there are no material consequences for those who don’t file, and believe us when we say, most of them don’t.

The Prevention of Corruption in Public Life Act empowers the Integrity Commission to investigate the declarations of the elected officials, even after those declarations have been published in the Gazette. The Commission may initiate an investigation based on its own suspicions or a credible complaint from the public. You would think that after we have witnessed all manner of malfeasance over the last decade, that at least one politician would have been exposed, or at the very least investigated by the respective Commissions. Cho. Nada. Zilch. Nothing.

We could go on at this point to list the additional powers of the Integrity Commission, but what’s the point? We are wasting time. Nothing ever happens. We have lamented about this in this space before, and for sure as night follows day, we will have to write about it again.

It all seems so quaint, this recent hullabaloo over the Public Accounts Committee. If both mass parties have been willfully impotent on the Integrity Commission, what makes any of us think the Public Accounts Committee will unleash the corrective powers inherent in its constitution? We are not optimistic. But, we beg our elected officials to prove us wrong.

It was as if the Integrity Commission was dead or moribund during all the major upheavals in the PUP’s two terms. And they are just as comatose in this, the UDP’s second go at it.

We think we understand why the last administration did not provide an enabling environment for the Integrity Commission and the Public Accounts Committee. But this government is on record as standing proudly on the planks of transparency and accountability. What the hell can be their explanation for not having these bodies function? We want to know.

We suppose everyone has his contradictions. But this pattern of contradictions is glaring. It borders on hypocrisy.

December is a time of giving, a time when treats are handed out, some wrapped with bows, some in envelopes, and some in grocery bags. It would be nice, really nice if the public can get a treat that will last well beyond the Christmas season. Not that goodie bags are not nice and needed. It is for sure that, in this time, they are. But a December treat of a properly manned Integrity Commission and a Public Accounts Committee with “oomph” would be treats of consequence that will benefit every one of us. Where there is a will, there is a way! Fu real!

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