Experts mull PM’s plans to trim Barbuda Council powers

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By Latrishka Thomas

Pundits say an independent body should be set up to scrutinise the Prime Minister’s controversial plans to strip the Barbuda Council of its sand mining and subleasing powers.

Former Attorney General Justin Simon was one of a number of guests who spoke on the subject during Observer’s ‘Big Issues’ radio show on Sunday.

“In light of the fact that this is a unitary state and whatever you do or try to legislate for the country includes Barbuda, then maybe the time has come for there to be an appointment of an independent body of professionals to see what government seeks to do, hear what the Barbuda Council has to say and make recommendations so that it is not a partisan affair, one party against another party,” he said.

Simon concretised his point by noting that although St Kitts and Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago are unitary states, Nevis and Tobago have their own local government and “seem to be working more or less harmoniously”.

“So there is no reason why this cannot be done here in Antigua and Barbuda, and what we do not want is a Prime Minister basically using a big stick and saying this is what I want, and this is what I’m going to get, and I will do whatever is necessary for me to achieve that. That is not going to take us anywhere,” Simon stated.

The lawyer’s recommendation was backed by another attorney, Beverly George, who is licensed in Antigua, New York and Jamaica.

“I would advise … sit down, negotiate, find some medium of compromise, because if the Prime Minister were to follow through with his and I put in quote, ‘promise’ and make these changes, I can guarantee you, the council will respond in kind,” she said.

George, who is also a member of the Antiguans and Barbudans for Constitutional Reform and Education (ABCRE), explained that if a resolution is not sought, the result could be costly protracted litigation.

Management consultant specialising in public sector transformation, governance and leadership development, Joan Underwood, also chimed in using PM Browne’s own words against him.

“There was a period in time not too long ago when our Prime Minister made a public pronouncement that the voice of the people is the voice of God,” Underwood said.

“And so I’d like to remind the Prime Minister of that statement … and join with Justin and Beverly in terms of advocating for an independent meeting, where professionals can come to the table and discuss the environmental and other considerations of this project with the view to coming up with a solution that is sustainable, not just economically, but environmentally and socially as well,” she added.

Meanwhile, Ambassador at large for the Global Organisation of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC), Akaash Maharaj joined with the others in saying that the Council is within its right to fight for its constitutional powers and should take it a step further.

“In a relatively small population with modest resources, the ability to stand up to people in positions of power are limited,” he said.

“The Prime Minister is not omnipotent. And I would say to the people that are Barbudan and the council of Barbuda, if they are listening to this programme that they, in addition to pursuing, exercising their political rights, they should also be bringing to bear social and international pressure on the Prime Minister to ensure that the world is aware of what he’s doing.”

It was just last week that Browne put the Barbuda Council on notice that he would be going to Parliament within days to strip it of at least two of its responsibilities.

Since then, Barbuda’s MP Trevor Walker has declared that “under no circumstances” will the sister isle’s government sit by and allow that to happen.

As stated in last week’s Cabinet notes, the Solicitor General and four lawyers from the Department of Legal Affairs were invited to Cabinet to offer insight on issues relating to the Barbuda Council.

The Cabinet was advised by some of the lawyers that the Barbuda Local Government Act contains a specific language which limits the actions of Parliament without a referendum among registered voters, and other limitations imposed by the Constitution.

As it relates to sand mining, it was outlined that the Beach Protection Act for Antigua could be amended, bringing sand mining in Barbuda under the control of a competent authority.

The lawyers are also in agreement that pieces of legislation could be amended to bring the issue of providing leases and subleases for land on Barbuda under the exclusive control of the Cabinet or Governor General.

But Attorney at Law Ralph Francis told Observer the government has no legal grounds on which to stand.

He said the Barbuda Land Act is enshrined in the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda and no changes can be made without the approval of the Council.

Section 123 (4) of the Constitution states that Parliament may alter any of the provisions of the Barbuda Local Government Act, 1976, specified in schedule two of the Constitution.

It further states that a bill to alter any of the said “provisions” shall not be regarded as being passed by the House unless after its final reading in that House the bill is referred to the Barbuda Council by the Clerk of the House, and the Barbuda Council gives its consent to the bill by resolution of the Council.

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