Ombudsman won’t handle new complaints until year’s end

POSTED: 08/31/11 1:08 PM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – On June 28, Ombudsman Dr. Nilda Arduin invited the media for a press conference. Rented plastic garden chairs in her conference room illustrated the quandary she found herself in, nine months after taking office. Yesterday, the situation had only slightly improved; the basic office furniture has arrived, but there still is not computer system, and no staff car.
“It’s Catch-22,” the Ombudsman said with a reference to Joseph Heller’s classic novel. “Usona does not pay before goods have been delivered, and suppliers don’t deliver before they have been paid. Our project has been approved but we are not going forward like this.”
Arduin demanded a meeting with Usona. It was scheduled for today but it had to be cancelled because Usona-representatives from Curacao could not get a flight because of the North Sea Jazz festival. The meeting will not take place next week. Usona, BAK (Home Affairs and Kingdom Affairs), the Ombudsman and the SER will be present to discuss the situation and to find solutions.
“We had to draw attention to this. It is unacceptable that we are still in this situation while the year is eight months underway.”
Arduin said that, the day after reports about the June-press conference appeared in local media, she received a promise that the purchase of the staff-car and the furniture was now approved. “But we still don’t have the car,” she said.
The missing car is one thing – Arduin let’s her staff on occasion use her private car – but there are also other things that get bogged down by the lack of funding. “We have an exchange program with Amsterdam. The Ombudsman of Amsterdam has visited us; we are supposed to pay that, but Amsterdam has advanced it. On Friday our complaints researcher Charlene Bell was scheduled to go to Amsterdam, but I have been forced to postpone that. I refuse to pay these trips from my own pocket any longer. Getting refunds takes an incredible long time.”
Arduin regrets the situation. “I hope that we will be able to reach concrete agreements during next week’s meeting. It cannot be so that funds are made available that then get stuck in the system this way. It is nasty that the money is available but that it is not released due to technical reasons. We have to find a solution for this.”
Arduin said that her office only has its furniture, because the supplier agreed to deliver without demanding upfront payment. He is therefore still waiting for his money.
While the Ombudsman and her staff are not twiddling their thumbs, they are still not taking in complaints from citizens, simply because there is no computer system in place to process them properly and to store information in a secure way. The only piece of high tech equipment on Arduin’s desk is her private laptop.
Until the Ombudsman stopped taking complaints in June, the office had received a total of 112 complaints. Of those, 28 concern civil matters, the rest has to do with governmental and civil servants affairs.
“We are currently evaluating those complaints. All ministers will be informed about our findings,” Arduin said.
The Ombudsman has started a series of exchange meetings with the ministries. Secretaries general and Heads of departments attend them. For these meetings, Arduin has made a decency index, a guide toward proper behavior by civil servants.
“It is important that the ministries understand the Ombudsman’s function. Our goal ought to be identical: good governance. The better we discuss matters, the faster we will find good solutions. People on the shop floor have to understand that they have to give a good service and that the Ombudsman is looking over their shoulder,” Arduin says.
The Ombudsman does not intend to lose herself into the writing of endless reports. “What is the use of that? We have to find solutions by talking with each other. We have to improve things. International research has established what happens with reports: they disappear in a drawer.”
In the exchange meetings Arduin compares the role of her office with that of the Court in First Instance. “Proper behavior goes further than the law,” she says. “A legal action can be very improper.”
When a citizen called the Today newspaper to say that the Ombudsman was not accepting any complaints, he was right, but the situation is not of the Ombudsman’s making. When will citizens be able to file complaints again?
Arduin has no definite answer to that question. “Let me be very optimistic, also to keep my staff’s spirits high. On January 1 of next year we must really be ready. If we miss that date, it is discouraging, not only for us, but also for our citizens.”
Arduin points out that in general it takes between 3 to 6 months to get a project approved. “I do not see that we will get our computers before the end of this year,” she says. “But once our computer systems are in place, we will be open to receive complaints again.”
The Ombudsman says that, while her office is currently not taking in complaints, she has stuck with her philosophy that “nobody leaves here without getting an answer.”
“People do come in and we give them advice. For instance, when they have a complaint the first step is not to the Ombudsman. They have to go to the government department they have a complaint about first. If that does not work, the Ombudsman is the next stop.”
This Friday, the Ombudsman meets with the President of the Constitutional Court, Bob Wit to discuss the national ordinance for the constitutional court.

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