Inquiry says the system worked

Independence referendum in the wake of Hurricane Felix, a Commission of Inquiry has found.

But Cabinet Secretary Mr.

Independence referendum in the wake of Hurricane Felix, a Commission of Inquiry has found.

But Cabinet Secretary Mr. Leopold Mills and his "senior civil service advisers'' did not give proper priority to holding the referendum "on the date fixed by law,'' the commission said in a report to Governor Lord Waddington.

Felix skirted Bermuda at about 10 p.m. on August 14 -- 12 hours before Bermudians were scheduled to go to the polls to decide whether the Island should keep its colonial ties with Britain.

There were no deaths or serious injuries, but trees and wires were downed, the causeway was impassable for a time, and about one third of the Island was without power.

Early on the morning of the 15th, Mr. Mills emerged from a meeting of the Emergency Measures Organisation and made a radio announcement. The commission never determined exactly what he said, but was satisfied he left the public with the impression the vote was "off that day''.

Only after intervention by the Governor were returning officers later sent out to open their polling stations and adjourn voting until the next day.

Otherwise, Parliament would have had to be reconvened to set a new date.

Then-Premier Sir John Swan's preference for a December date was among the reasons Independence opponents like Government backbenchers Mrs. Ann Cartwright DeCouto and Mr. Trevor Moniz felt there was a political attempt to have the referendum delayed.

But the situation was not "total anarchy'', as Mrs. Cartwright DeCouto described it, the report said. "Nor was there a deliberate and perverse intent to flaunt the law.'' Not only was there no "smoking gun'', as Mr. Moniz conceded at the end of the hearings in November, "there was indeed no gun at all''.

"In the final analysis the system of Government worked properly and there was no disregard shown for the rule of law.'' However, "it is fair to state... that the importance of holding the referendum on the date fixed by law was not given proper priority by Mr. Mills and his senior civil service advisers,'' the report said.

While it was understandable that concern centred on public safety, "no contingency plans were prepared to deal with the eventuality that Hurricane Felix may have changed course ever so slightly and merely struck Bermuda a glancing blow.

"A calmer look at the weather advisories would have indicated that...although conditions would not have been suitable for the holding of a poll, they might have been such that returning officers could have opened the polls and adjourned to the next day.'' The commission found that with the exception of St. George's and St. David's, returning officers could have reached all polling stations at 8 a.m. on August 15.

However, Mr. Mills "laboured under some legal misconceptions'', like the view that "all polling stations should open at the same time or none could open''.

Once returning officers were sent out to open and close the polls, the delay in making a public announcement until after a 5.30 p.m. Cabinet meeting ended "predictably magnified the suspicions that something devious was afoot.'' The commission could not hear evidence about exactly what was said at that Cabinet meeting, but even if an attempt was made to put the vote off until Christmas, "the fact that it did not succeed proves that the system had worked''.

Inquiry finds no `smoking gun' Only three recommendations were made -- two of them being a new Referendum Act and amendments to the Parliamentary Election Act to provide for an "act of God.'' Thirdly, it should be made clear that future EMO recommendations for the public to stay home did not apply to emergency workers. Mr. Mills said yesterday he was generally pleased with the report. "Hopefully, my successor won't be having to operate in a vacuum, like I was,'' he said.

His impression that the polls all had to open at the same time was not "pulled out of thin air'', though he was unable to tell the commission where he got that impression.

As for conditions on the morning of the 15th, Mr. Mills maintained they "still were quite dangerous,'' and he "took a different view'' as to whether returning officers should have been sent out on schedule that morning.

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