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Minister quits Cabinet in wake of planning appeals controversy

Walter Roban last night quit Cabinet after 16 days as Public Works Minister, saying he deeply regrets bringing accusations of corruption upon Government.

Mr Roban had come under intense criticism for granting planning permission for Progressive Labour Party colleagues Zane DeSilva and Wayne Furbert on his final day as Environment Minister, against the advice of his technical officers.

Less than two hours before Mr Roban resigned, new Environment Minister Marc Bean had issued a statement saying his controversial decisions on November 2 counted for nothing.

Mr Roban then wrote to Premier Paula Cox in an e-mail at 8.13pm: “I wish to tender my resignation as Minister for Public Works, effective immediately.

“In recent days there has been heightened public criticism of my decisions as Minister of the Environment Planning and Infrastructure Strategy in two particular matters.

“This has brought about questions of the Government's integrity and accusations of corruption of which I deeply regret.

“It was and is not my intention to see any accusations of this nature continue on the PLP Government with my presence in your Cabinet.

“After careful consideration of the events that have transpired, I honestly feel this decision is the best for me and the Government.

“I remain a steadfast supporter of your Premiership and the work you and our team endeavour to achieve. My work in the backbench will remain to support the mandate given to us by the people of Bermuda. Thank you for the opportunity to serve our country.”

Ms Cox told The Royal Gazette last night: “Please note that I have accepted the Hon Walter Roban's resignation.

“While it is with regret, I respect him all the more for adopting his stance.

“He has served the Cabinet with commitment and passion and been unswerving in his loyalty to the people of Bermuda and the Progressive Labour Party Government and this is both appreciated and acknowledged, with gratitude.

“He is a valued member of the PLP Government team and I look forward to his continued public service.”

In his statement, Mr Bean said Government has ruled Mr Roban was in fact no longer Minister by the time his decisions favouring Mr DeSilva and Mr Furbert came into effect. As a result, Mr Bean will review both Ministers' appeals afresh.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Government had released a very lengthy statement defending Mr Roban's decision to uphold Mr DeSilva's appeal. At that stage it was not public knowledge that Mr Roban had also upheld Mr Furbert's appeal.

Yesterday afternoon, environmentalist Stuart Hayward accused Mr Roban of acting corruptly and subverting the planning process to help out his fellow MPs.

Mr Hayward said Mr Roban had given the two Ministers a free pass in his final moments in the post, when instead he should have dismissed their planning applications for providing inadequate or false information.

Shadow Environment Minister Michael Fahy weighed in by asking Ms Cox how she can claim to be leading a new era of good governance while publicly turning a blind eye to unethical behaviour from a Cabinet member.

Mr DeSilva's plan to build warehouses on Devonshire Marsh was rejected by technical officers because of significant discrepancies and insufficient information about the environmental impact of the project. An appeal was lodged in March.

Mr Furbert's proposal to build homes at his home in Hamilton Parish was rejected by the Planning Board because the land was reserved for agricultural purposes. An appeal was lodged in April.

Government yesterday said Mr Roban had decided to uphold both appeals on November 1, although information from the Planning Department suggest the decisions were made on November 2, his last day in the job.

Mr Bean said in his statement at 6.31pm: “It has been determined that the decision regarding an appeal to the Minister responsible for Planning does not take effect until that decision has been communicated to the parties.

“Despite the fact that the decision to uphold the appeals was made on November 1, the operative date of the decision was the date on which the decision was communicated to the parties to the appeal: a date after November 2, when Minister Roban was no longer Minister of the Environment, Planning and Infrastructure Strategy.

“This position is analogous to the custom, practice and legal provisions of the issuance of court judgments which become operative at the time the judgment is delivered.

“At the time the decisions were delivered, Minster Roban was no longer the Minister of the Environment, Planning and Infrastructure Strategy and so the appeals will now be reviewed afresh by the new Minister for Environment Planning and Infrastructure Strategy, The Hon Marc Bean JP, MP.”

In its statement the previous day, Government had said Mr Roban was satisfied he had sufficient information to grant in-principle approval to Mr DeSilva's plan, subject to conditions.

“The process of transparency has been upheld regarding this application process,” said that Government release.

But Mr Roban has repeatedly failed to respond when asked on what grounds he upheld Mr Furbert's appeal.

Commenting on Mr Furbert's proposal yesterday afternoon, Mr Hayward, the president of Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce, pointed to a memo from the Department of Conservation, which stated it falsely gave the impression the lot in question is vacant.

Mr Hayward said: “In both applications, the Development Applications Board was given inadequate and false information.

“Neither application ever conformed to the requirements: that's why they were both turned down by the DAB. Those basic requirements should have been completed at the application stage.

“If inadequate or misleading information accompanied the application, there it should have ended.

“No one should be permitted to sidestep the basic process and get a free pass, but that's what happened here.

“Two flawed applications were given free passes by Environment Minister Roban.

“In effect, the Environment Minister assisted a Cabinet colleague and a fellow parliamentarian to subvert the Planning process. There are no other words for this, it is really a corruption of principle.”

Senator Michael Fahy said in a statement at 5.06pm: “This week's revelations of a Government Minister taking advantage of the system to give two colleagues preferential treatment on their land development applications represents the same me-first behaviour that has tarnished the integrity of Bermuda's Government in recent years.

“The Premier's statement that she will have 'zero tolerance for behaviour and practice that do not accord with the highest standards of good governance' rings hollow in light of these approvals by Minister Roban.

“It is our view that if the Premier supports or condones this kind of behaviour then she supports one set of rules for her colleagues and another set of rules for the people.

“If this kind of arrangement is in line with her zero tolerance policy, if these approvals are allowed to stand, then really nothing much has changed, has it?

“It's just more 'business as usual' despite her public commitments to end it.

“We urge the Premier to make a statement on the situation, and explain how the decisions made in respect of Ministers Zane DeSilva and Wayne Furbert by outgoing Environment Minister Roban fits into her 'zero tolerance' policy.”

Sen Fahy said the One Bermuda Alliance welcomes Mr Bean's pledge to review the file.

“We hope common sense and respect for the integrity of the Planning process prevails,” he stated.

“Mr Bean's review should not be used as an excuse by the Premier to dodge the need to clear the air about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behaviour for her Cabinet colleagues.

“Bermudians want a higher standard of behaviour from their Government. They certainly don't want one set of rules for them and another set of rules for those that are supposed to lead us.

“For the sake of higher standards of governance for Bermuda, we hope common sense and respect for the people of this Island will prevail in this matter.”

Regarding Mr Roban's approval of Mr DeSilva's application, Sen Fahy said: “Minister Roban should have simply accepted the Independent Inspector's recommended rejection of Minister DeSilva's appeal.

“Instead Minister Roban decided to ignore recommendations by technical officers, the Director of Planning and the Independent Inspector; while he was literally walking out of his Minister's office for the last time.

“In effect, he was thumbing his nose at a system designed to ensure fairness, transparency and avoid ministers sitting in judgment of Ministers.

“This is the line crossed, making one set of rules for Cabinet Ministers and another for the people of Bermuda.

“It is a red herring for Minister Roban to say make the excuse that 'in principle' permission is given.

“The fact is no permission should have been granted in the first place, given the Independent Inspector's recommendations and the fact that it would have removed any doubt of favouritism from the equation.”

At 9.36pm, Sen Fahy stated on Facebook: “Minister Roban did the honourable thing.”

Out: Public Works Walter Roban resigned from his Cabinet position last night in the wake of criticism about his decision to allow planning appeals by fellow PLP MPs Zane DeSilva and Wayne Furbert.

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Published November 18, 2011 at 6:00 am (Updated November 17, 2011 at 9:01 pm)

Minister quits Cabinet in wake of planning appeals controversy

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