Photo: Denise “Sista B” Barrow
BELIZE CITY, Mon. Mar. 27, 2023
It was Friday, April 22, 2021, and twenty (20) meetings of the Belize House of Representatives since the Honorable Denise “Sista B” Barrow, member for the Queen’s Square constituency, appeared at the National Assembly building in Belmopan.
The official record shows that the last time she was present for a meeting of the House was almost two years ago on April 22, 2021, the first day of the annual two-day budget debate.
She was present long enough then to be marked present and then skedaddled, and not even her shadow has graced such hallowed precincts since.
She tendered her regrets in advance for her eighth consecutive absence, but neither the Speaker nor the National Assembly have reportedly heard from her officially since.
She also does not attend committee meetings to which she has been assigned, and so her nephew, Leader of the Opposition Hon. Moses “Shyne” Barrow, the member for Mesopotamia and United Democratic Party Leader, has filled in for her on occasion. She does not participate in any of the National Assembly activities and has not joined the bi-partisan Caucus of Female Parliamentarians, nor has she attended any of their conclaves.
Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño criticized Hon. Denise “Sista B” Barrow for missing yet another House Meeting during his wrap-up of the budget debate last Friday, and 2 other PUP representatives jocularly referred to her prolonged absences during last week’s three-day budget debate meeting of the House.
All 4 members of the Opposition present who spoke during the debate, failed to make any mention of her absences. The Leader of the Opposition particularly spoke for 95 minutes in his response to the PM’s budget speech, and on the budget bill and on motions.
He, UDP leader Hon. Shyne Barrow, is on record as saying on Channel 5’s Open Your Eyes morning show on March 29, 2022, when questioned on the issue: “The member from Queen’s Square was elected by the people of Queen’s Square, and when the people of Queen’s Square come to me or whatever means of communications they have to express any type of dissatisfaction with the fact that the member for Queen’s Square is not in the House as regularly as you or others may want her to be, then I will take immediate actions to address that. But, I have said before that everyone serves their constituency in different ways, and I am all about serving the constituency in the most effective ways for that person. Now, until the rules change in the House Standing Orders and there is a mandatory requirement, the senior member from Queen’s Square, she is a senior member in the party, will have to deal with the matter. My intervention will come when the people that elected the member for Queen’s Square start to complain.”
Section 59(2)(a) of the Constitution provides that a person who absents him/herself for such period and in such circumstances provided in Standing Orders vacates his/her seat.
Standing Order 84 provides that a seat is vacated by a member where they are absent from the House for more than six consecutive sittings, if it occurs during the same session (note this session commenced December 11, 2020), the six consecutive absences happen within a period of three calendar months, and the parliamentarian did not obtain leave from the Speaker to be absent before the ending of the six consecutive sittings within 3 months.
The Belize House of Representatives has never held 6 consecutive meetings within 3 months, and it is widely believed that the Standing Orders are premised on the House meeting weekly. There is one comprehensive proposal being drafted to amend, reform, and update the Standing Orders and those will not only address the issue of absences, but they will also propose as well to rehabilitate and modernize the National Assembly’s physical infrastructure.
The National Assembly building is 50-years old and was built when the City of Belmopan was built back in the ‘70s. The Parliament only had 18 area representatives and 9 senators then; it has 31 area representatives and 13 senators now.
The Honorable Sista B has missed every meeting since April 2021, the first day of the annual Government budget debate — a total of 20 consecutive, and she may have only once obtained leave to be absent from the Speaker. She has only been marked present 3 times since being elected and has been absent from 20 of the 23 meetings so far in this session of the House of Representatives.
Even when she did attend the first 3 House meetings of the Briceño administration, she did not participate in any of the discussions and debates, did not vote, and left early, the last time really early—preferring to go chill at the Belmopan Market down the Hill.
The historical record for purposes of comparison is that the Honorable Elvin Penner missed 7 of the 37 meetings of the 10th session of the Belize House of Representatives in the Barrow administration’s 2008-2012 term, including the two-day 2011 budget debate, and the last two meetings before the general election. His attendance record was the worst of any representative then to date.
The Honorable Elvin Penner, the member for Cayo Northeast, was absent from 15 of the 33 meetings of the 11th Session of the Belize House of Representatives, (2012 -2015), and more to the point, he was absent from 12 of the last 17 meetings. But he is not the worst offender ever, however, that honor belongs to the then member for Orange Walk North, former UDP Deputy Leader and former Deputy Prime Minister, the Honorable Gasper “Gapi” Vega.
Gapi Vega is the champion absentee parliamentarian — 22 consecutive meetings missed over the course of 3 years, August 2017 to March 2020. Sista B apparently aspires to tie and surpass his record, a milestone she may first achieve when there is a meeting of the House, and then a joint session of the Belize National Assembly next month for an address by the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen, and she is absent.
She did not attend the joint session when the Cuban President spoke there last month on February 27th, and there is no good reason to assume she will attend any other meetings before the end of her term.
The UDP will be selecting a new standard bearer/candidate for the constituency shortly, since she has given the party notice that she will not be standing for re-election whenever the next general election scheduled for November 2025, is called.
There has been no indication, official or otherwise, that she does not intend to serve out her term which pays her over $48,000 annually in salary and allowances ($4,000 per month), and she also gets to spend the over $10,000 monthly community vote.
She is also entitled to participate in the constituency development fund, which could bring the total an area representative gets to manage and spend to more than $160,000 per year.
Prime Minister John Briceño told the House during the close of the debate last Friday that her prolonged absences means that she is not representing the views of the good people of Queen’s Square, and stated, “I call upon the Leader of the Opposition to speak to the member from Queen’s Square to attend House meetings.
“If she fails to so do then I will call on members to amend the Standing Orders of the House to ensure that this matter is addressed in such a way that the people of Queen’s Square will be represented in this honourable House,” he further said.
PUP Cayo South area representative Hon. Julius Espat, who did not attend this meeting of the House and could not participate in the budget debate due to the death of, and services for, his mother, told AMANDALA that he has brought up the matter of Sista B’s prolonged absences every time he has attended meetings for more than a year.
He called it a disgrace and said that it was unacceptable and could not be justified. It is a disrespect to her constituents, the institution of the House and the people of Belize, he told the newspaper.
He called service as an area representative an honor, and noted that he wasn’t paid during the six months he was thrown out of the House in 2016 but continued to serve.