Ombudsman Arduin in Central Committee: “Civil servants have attitude as if they are fourth power”

POSTED: 08/14/13 3:12 PM
Ombudsman in CC
From left Secretary General Patricia Philips, Ombudsman Dr. Nilda Arduin and legal counsel Marlon Hart. Photo Today / Leo Brown

St. Maarten – Civil servants are taking part in workshops organized by the office of the Ombudsman to educate them about the standards of proper conduct. The last workshop is scheduled for tomorrow. “Some civil servants have an attitude as if they are the fourth power,” Ombudsman Dr. Nilda Arduin observed drily in a meeting of the Central committee yesterday morning.

The ombudsman gave members of the Central Committee the highlights of her annual 2012 report. It shows that most complaints were filed against two ministries that have a lot of contact with the public: Public Housing, Urban Planning, Environment and Infrastructure (Vromi) and Public Health, Social Affairs and Labor (VSA). “Not all complaints are justified,” the Ombudsman pointed out.

The major complaint from 2011 – that departments simply do not answer correspondence from citizens – received a lot of attention in 2012 as well. The Ombudsman recommends that the ministries set up a system of proper record keeping including fixed terms for keeping track of where documents are when they travel from ministry to ministry.

The most attention from MPs went to two issues: the Cadastre and the penal code. In 2010 the ombudsman initiated an investigation at the Cadastre after she noted that on two successive days – one of them being a public holiday – the office issues two different excerpts about the same property. The Ombudsman wanted to know how the public land registry is maintained and whether the Cadastre is open for the public on public holidays.

When the investigation started, the Cadastre refused to cooperate, saying that it did not fall under the Ombudsman’s authority. Director Clemens Roos has always maintained that he is not accountable to any minister of to the ombudsman, but to the Cadastre’s supervisory board.

“It took a long time to make the Cadastre understand that it is a private entity with public authority,” Ombudsman Arduin told the Central Committee yesterday. “For the Cadastre to understand that it is accountable to the government was a huge task.”

Arduin pointed out however that “where laws are missing” there is also a task for the government and by extension the parliament.

“We reminded the minister of Vromi that we wanted an account of what he did with our recommendations about the Cadastre,” Arduin said. “The last response came on July 19 and it reconfirmed that the Cadastre is a private entity with public authority, that it is accountable to the government and that it has to cooperate with investigations by the Ombudsman.”

The Ombudsman however holds the Vromi-ministry accountable for what happens at the Cadastre. “The minister is now in the process of reviewing our recommendations,” Arduin said. “We have to be sure that our land registry is correct. We have agreed with the minister that we will get an update every two months on the progress made,”

MPs asked the ombudsman what the d=criteria are for taking legislation for review to the
Constitutional Court, as has happened with the draft penal code. Especially the article that exempts organized animal fights from the ban on animal cruelty has the attention of parliamentarians.

“There was a petition with 5,000 signatures,” UP-MP Jules James noted. “What does it require to follow up on such complaints?”

Arduin was clear on that one: “The only ground for taking legislation for review to the Constitutional Court is when we find arguments that a law could contravene the constitution.”

Lastly, there is the matter of the time departments take to respond to correspondence. “Where it is regulated it is usually 30 days,” Arduin said. “When there is no term established, the law speaks of a reasonable time. The common Court of Justice has defined this to be 3 months, based on the poko poko principle.”

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