Prepare to be confused

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Well folks, another mystery has unfolded before our eyes.  This one is a doozy, and if Mr B were around, he would say “only in Antigua!”  Actually, it is more confusion than mystery but since we have very few answers, much of it remains a mystery.  Of course, we are talking about the water desalination facility that was formerly operated by Sembcorp.

We are going to walk you through what we know and ask some questions as we go along because we are as confused as everyone else.

The meat of this story seems to begin late last year when the reverse osmosis water plant, then operated by Sembcorp, was about to be turned over to the Government.  In August, Public Utilities Minister Sir Robin Yearwood said workers at Sembcorp Antigua water would have nothing to fear, as it related to their job security.  He said that the Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA) would take over the ownership of the privately owned water company in September (or thereabouts) and the staff would be taken care of.   Sir Robin said the employees were best suited to continue running the water operations and stated that APUA were in talks about what will happen after the take-over.

His opinion was that there was a strong possibility such talks would have led to the employees joining the team at the statutory corporation. He said, “We hope all might want to come to APUA; it’s a plant and we are not going to take people from another plant to go there. They will have that option,” Adding that it would be left up to the workers if they stay under APUA or leave.   We now know that the workers were never retained by APUA.

Sembcorp eventually left in January of this year and it would appear that APUA was not ready.  That is the only conclusion that we can come to because on January 17, 2017, the General Manager of APUA wrote to a company named NS Management and gave them a contract (in principle) to run the plant.  Specifically, it said, “This letter confirms the completion of negotiations between…” the two companies and “… further confirms that an agreement has been reached between both parties…” The letter gave the principal of NS Management “access to the premises of Sembcorp plant” with the understanding that the company “will assume control of the operations thereof pending the resolution of the contract.”  The letter from the GM was copied to Sir Robin Yearwood and Mr Ivan Rodrigues.

NS Management was unknown to us but we found out that the company, or its principal(s), do have experience in the area of operating reverse osmosis water plants.

Fast forward to late February 2017 and the Board of Commissioners seems to have caught wind that an agreement existed to manage and operate the plant and all hell broke loose.  In a February 27, 2017 letter from the Chairman, Luther Lee, to NS Management, he states that “the Board recently discovered “ that “NS Management Ltd is in occupation of the Authority’s Reverse Osmosis Plant at Crabs … without the Board’s authority, consent, and approval, and contrary to a direct decision of the Cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda.”  He then gave the company “formal notice … to vacate the premises within 72 hours”. 

Wow!  So many questions, but let’s start with the big elephant in the room.  Is the relationship between management, the Board, the Minister and Cabinet so dysfunctional that something as simple as this could get so mucked up?  Judging by the Prime Minister’s post on our website (which we have confirmed), he places the blame squarely at the feet of APUA’s General Manager, Esworth Martin.  The PM posted, “Get their backsides out and fire Martin for defying the instructions of the Cabinet and the APUA Board.”  It doesn’t get more direct and politically incorrect than that!

In response, Sir Robin has sought to spread the blame, saying that he believes both government and APUA management are to be blamed for the confusion, as he was unsure whether the general manager was informed of the cabinet decision.  An interesting stance, since the Minister sits, literally, just a couple of steps away from the GM, on the same floor of APUA headquarters.  But, remember, this is a mystery.

If you were looking for answers at the Cabinet briefing, it did nothing but drop another smoke screen and cloud the air further.  Minister of Information Melford Nicholas, addressed the matter and made a big deal about the chronology so lets have a look at that.

Upon news breaking, the APUA GM was portrayed as being deliberately defiant and the PM called for his head.  One day later, he has been vindicated and it is said that he was only acting out of the interest of APUA and ensuring the water supply was continuous.  On Tuesday, Minister Yearwood said he did not know anything about the matter, even though he is copied on the letter to NS Management. One day later, he was so knowledgeable that he convinced the Cabinet that all was good and they need look no further.  Nicholas said that Cabinet “accepted the explanation of the minister”. 

Let’s now step back in time.  In August, APUA is said to be preparing to take-over the Sembcorp plant.  Five months later, they are still not ready and the management needs to secure the water supply so they sign a management agreement (which is apparently in violation of strict Cabinet and Board directives).  NS Management is brought on board but a month later is kicked out.  Miraculously, APUA was able to muster the knowledge and resources to take over the plant in less than 48 hours – something that they could not do in months before and only after the letter to vacate was issued by the Board.

Earlier, the PM indicated that he stands by his comment and “the next step would result in firings.”  Cabinet has disagreed (note that the PM was not sitting in Cabinet for these deliberation).  So it is now very interesting to see the next move by these two ABLP powerhouses.  Sir Robin has flexed his muscles and has stood in the way of the PM’s “next step”, in order to protect his GM from the fallout.  The result of this struggle will indicate who holds the power in the Government and the ABLP. 

This is one for the ages and at this point, none of the stories we have heard hold any water (pun intended!); especially when we consider the documentation available to us and the statements made thus far.  We hope that the confusion that reigns will yield to transparency and accountability.  Yet, we live in a place called Antigua & Barbuda where those two words have all but been erased from our vocabulary.  Let us see if someone will go the extra mile to renew our faith.

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