Opinion: EmbarrassingPOSTED: 06/30/11 12:53 PM
Former Finance Commissioner Xavier Blackman finds himself in an awkward position, but the position the Finance Ministry has placed itself in it outright embarrassing.
Blackman, who was hailed as the first professional Commissioner in the National Alliance led executive council in 2009, and who stood to become the country’s first Finance Minister had the aftermath of the September elections had a different outcome, finds himself from the outside looking in.
As a former government insider he knows better than most people how, as he expressed it in court yesterday, how procedures are not followed.
The case at hand seems basically simple. When Blackman left office in October of last year, he had served as a Commissioner since June 2009. As a now former political office holder he is entitled to an income derived from the National Ordinance Pension Regulation Political Office Holders.
That ordinance went into effect on October 10, so after Blackman left office. But the predecessor of country St. Maarten, the Island territory, had a similar arrangement, laid down in an ordinance that went into effect sometime in 2006. The text of both ordinances is basically the same.
The ordinance offers politicians social safety net that is in itself not unreasonable. Life in the political arena is unpredictable, and careers can be cut short from one day to the other. To leave people who have made themselves available for public service penniless after their political downfall (or after their honorable departure, as is the case with Blackman) is overly harsh. Hence this regulation that seems a bit generous to the average voter, but it is there, and if politicians find themselves in a situation that qualifies them for benefits from this arrangement, the government obviously has to pony up.
The arrangement is not for eternity, mind you. Politicians benefit from it for a minimum of one year and a maximum of two years. During this time, the benefits gradually decrease from one hundred to seventy percent.
Blackman submitted a request for these benefits on October 1 of last year. While he received payments until the end of the year, no formal decision was taken. Starting from January also became irregular and what’s more, the Finance Ministry contests that Blackman is still entitled to healthcare insurance.
Even better, the attorney for the Finance Ministry argued that Blackman does not qualify for any of these benefits. The argument here is that the new ordinance defines political office holders as ministers, Ministers of Plenipotentiary and Members of the Parliament.
And hey, Blackman never was a minister. Right? He was a finance commissioner in the Executive Council of the Island Territory of St. Maarten.
Lame as this argument may be, it does not hold water at all, given the fact that the Finance Ministry has been paying Blackman advance payments, awaiting a formal decision.
That formal decision is a bit of a mystery. For nine months now the Finance Ministry has been dragging its feet. Blackman, familiar with the speed at which wheels in the government turn, found himself on the phone, and found himself writing emails to the ministry about the decision. Nothing happened.
So finally he decided to take his case to court. And bingo! All of a sudden the Finance Ministry discovered that an advice for the Minister had been prepared and that a decision is expected next week.
This made us think of the suspension of Regina Labega and Edward Dest from their job at the Tourist Bureau last year. The situation dragged on and on for about a month until Labega and Dest decided to take the government to court in summary proceedings. And again, bingo! Shortly before the court case, the Ministry of Tourism suddenly found a good reason to end their suspension.
That somebody of Blackman’s stature now has to go to court to force the Finance Ministry to take a decision it should have taken months and months ago is embarrassing – not for Blackman, but for the government. To add insult to injury Secretary General Sherry Hazel told Blackman, when he complained about the irregular payments, that it says nowhere in the law that these payments have to be made regularly.
That remark alone smells so badly of ill will that it is worthy an investigation by the Ombudsman. Shame though that the funding of the Ombudsman Bureau is so precarious that it is unable to handle new complaints at the moment.
One side issue that came up during the court hearing is that Maria Buncamper-Molanus and Roy Marlin also went to court over claims to payment based on the same ordinance. We remember that Marlin was a commissioner during the five days before the transition to country status. Theoretically, a five-day Commissioner could lay claim to one-year’s worth of salary based on the ordinance, but we trust that the nature of the claim was different. Unless somebody comes up with proof of the contrary of course.