Public Accounts Committee divided over whether deliberations should go public – PUP say yes, UDP say no.
The first planned business session of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), a standing committee of the House of Representatives, could not get off the ground this afternoon as planned, because of continued schism between the four ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) members and the two Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) members over whether the session should be kept private or opened to the public, as parliamentary rules can permit.
Near the start of the session, set to begin around 2:00 p.m. today inside the National Assembly Chambers in Belmopan, Opposition chairman of the meeting, Julius Espat, reiterated his call for the meetings to go public.
Espat told Amandala that in the gallery at the time were KREM’s YaYa Marin-Coleman and two elected members of the House of Representatives: Toledo East Mike Espat and Toledo West Oscar Requeña. The UDP members of the PAC refused to allow Espat, Requeña and Coleman to sit and witness the meeting, Espat said.
The Clerk of the National Assembly, Eddie Webster, said at the meeting that no invitation was given to the public by the National Assembly. Making the meeting public, Webster told Espat, “is not your prerogative.”
Espat maintained, however, that the PAC members had at their last meeting agreed to go public. However, UDP member of the committee, Michael Finnegan, rebutted, saying “nobody agreed.”
“You [PUP] are 2 and we [UDP] are 4,” Finnegan said.
Another UDP member also took issue with having members of the public present: Patrick Faber took issue with what he said Espat was “trying to pull” by opening the meeting and having the media come into the meeting. That was never the intention of the rules, Faber said, indicating that information is to be made public by making transcripts of their meeting available to the public.
Call Gian Ghandi, the government’s legal advisor, Espat urged. Ghandi had given input at an initial meeting held on October 1, 2012, at which Espat was picked as chair and the date and time of today’s meeting was agreed by both sides. Espat maintained that Ghandi’s opinion at that time was, once the committee agreed to go public, they could.
Espat requested a copy of the minutes of that meeting, and he protested, he said, when he realized that the question that was put to Ghandi and his reply were omitted from the minutes. Espat then asked for an hour’s adjournment to review the tape of the last meeting, but the other committee members indicated that they would not wait that long to have the meeting resume.
So, the meeting was adjourned without the members agreeing when they would proceed with the work of the Public Accounts Committee.
Ghandi told Amandala that Julius Espat had visited him last Friday, and his advice to Espat was that members need to have a formal resolution presented and passed on the question of whether they should or should not go public.
Espat contends, however, that that was already accomplished at the last meeting, when the question was discussed and “no one objected.” Espat said, “…that is as good as a vote.”
Ghandi told our newspaper that in the UK, the practice is for the public to be allowed to hear live testimony whenever witnesses are called by the Committee on Public Accounts, but, he said, deliberations of the committee are closed to the public. He indicated, however, that it is up to the PAC in Belize, under our parliamentary rules, to decide what procedure they would adopt on the question of public presence at the meetings.
For today’s session, chairman Espat had invited two officers of government (Auditor General Dorothy Bradley and Financial Secretary Joseph Waight), but neither of them attended.
The meeting, Espat said, lasted only 30 minutes and not even the agenda he proposed was accepted by the other members of the PAC.
In the heat of their dispute, UDP member John Saldivar said “the four of us [UDP] can get up and walk out…”
He also told Espat, who proposed looking at the 2010-2011 report of the Auditor General, that they could start their scrutiny from 1998 to 2008 – the last two administrations of the People’s United Party.
Finnegan stressed the need for the committee to conduct its business in an orderly fashion by first sorting out its terms of reference.
Whereas getting a quorum for the Public Accounts Committee has for years been a problem, today, all six members showed up.
Espat said that he will report on today’s meeting to Leader of the Opposition Francis Fonseca. He told us that he hopes to review the audio of the last PAC meeting sometime this week, and the next step would be to discuss a new date for the Public Accounts Committee to meet.
Espat said that in his opinion, it is the Belizean public and not the politicians who need to decide how things will proceed.
(Amandala thanks KREM’s YaYa Marin-Coleman for sharing with us what had transpired in the early part of the meeting.)