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Failure of democracy – and all that stuff

Get stuffed: Craig Cannonier should have quit while he was behind in Parliament when appearing to trivialise the public’s right to know about the failed Sandys 360 project and the millions squandered on it (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Craig Cannonier, a One Bermuda Alliance backbencher and former Premier of Bermuda, made some telling remarks in the House of Assembly on March 2.

Telling because they neatly summed up the prevailing view among this island’s political elite when it comes to transparency and accountability.

Both parties have paid lip service to the idea of freedom of information, with the passing of the Pati Act by the Progressive Labour Party in 2010 and the implementation of it by the OBA five years later.

But when it comes to putting their words into action, into actually disclosing the records that public authorities hold on our behalf for us to scrutinise, they fail — in every conceivable way.

Cannonier was talking about Sandys 360 when he gave the clearest indication possible that Bermuda’s elected officials don’t give a hoot one way or another about open government or even about recouping money wrongly paid out of the public purse, never to be seen again.

Sandys 360 is the indoor pool and fitness centre that opened in 2009 on Broome Street, in Somerset, next to Sandys Secondary Middle School.

The school’s trustees were behind the project and their aim was apparently noble: to build a top-class facility for the West End, to benefit the students of the school and the wider community.

The world is full of good ideas and good intentions, but when it comes to shelling out money — our money, lest we forget — for these potentially harebrained schemes, those who control the purse strings need to do their jobs and do due diligence.

In the case of Sandys 360, we can only assume that public officials did quite the opposite. The centre closed four years after opening, with a mortgage close to $10 million still owed to HSBC, more than $1 million to the contractors who built it and an unknown amount to Belco.

Limited disclosures made under public access to information by the OBA government showed that at least $5.3 million was paid out of the public purse towards the project between 2007 and 2013.

One payment in 2011 for $807,000 was made by mistake — a duplicate grant not paid back by the trustees, who by then were struggling to keep their heads above water, pun intended, owing to the unsustainable running costs of the pool.

That brings us back to Cannonier, who, when public works minister in 2016, proposed buying Sandys 360 for the sum of $1 million. The idea went nowhere with the OBA, but is about to become a reality under the PLP.

“People have tried to, in the past, bring up all kinds of things, double payments and the like,” Cannonier said on March 2. “You know what, we don’t even need to get into all of that stuff. This is Sandys 360 who started out trying to do a good job and found themselves in trouble.”

A cheque for almost $1 million was wrongly paid out of the public purse and disappeared into a vortex. We don’t even need to get into all of that stuff.

Cannonier should have quit while he was behind, but instead he ploughed on, raising the issue of a report into Sandys 360’s finances by KPMG, ordered by his OBA government.

The same administration refused to release the report under public access to information in response to a request by The Royal Gazette. It remains under wraps under the PLP.

Cannonier said: “People were coming to me at the time saying ‘they are not giving up their financials’ and the likes. Completely unnecessary for people to carry on in that manner when we were seeking out an opportunity to save that area.”

In the former premier’s view, it is “completely unnecessary” for people to poke their noses into how millions of dollars of public money was spent.

They ought not to question where all that cash went before Sandys 360, an outright and abject failure, closed its doors in late 2013.

Cannonier does not think we have the right to ask, far less the right to know.

His remarks, shocking and depressing as they were, raised not a murmur among his fellow MPs, including from anyone in his own party — the official Opposition.

Collectively, Bermuda’s elected politicians have decided that they, our dear leaders, know best. One hopes that they have read the KPMG report — although it is not clear if they have — so they can decide, on our behalf, whether we should continue spending good money after bad.

There may be a real argument to say that we should bail out the trustees and pay off the mortgage for $1 million, allowing the facility to become public property.

So let us see it. Let us see the business plan that the Sandys 360 trustees presented to the PLP government to persuade it to part with so much cash. The same plan, presumably, that convinced the OBA to part with some more public money when it came to power.

And let us see the new plan, the one that tells us how much this centre will cost us going forward as we struggle to right our economy and educate our children in public schools.

Let us “get into all of that stuff” so we can understand why decisions were taken then and why they are being taken now. It’s called democracy.

Public works minister Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch has the chance to demonstrate his commitment to accountability before Wednesday, when senators will be asked to approve the purchase of Sandys 360 for $1 million.

He can release the KPMG report and any records held by the Government that will shed light for taxpayers on to this sorry, costly mess.

It might be “completely unnecessary” according to Craig Cannonier, but it would be the right thing to do.