Sun | Jul 25, 2021

Editorial | Perimeter road misstep

Published:Thursday | May 27, 2021 | 12:07 AM

IT IS, to say the least, surprising, and raises questions about the judgement of who advised the action, that Prime Minister Andrew Holness did not anticipate the Integrity Commission’s (IC) rebuff of his invitation to provide cover for the administration’s sole-source contract negotiations with China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) for the Montego Bay perimeter road.

It ought to have been obvious to the PM that an acceptance of the request would have raised questions, real or imagined, about the independence of the IC. That, potentially, would be damaging to the agency’s credibility. Further, if Mr Holness is a student of history, recent though, in this case, he might have discerned in his idea echoes of the 2012 dispute between the former contractor general, Greg Christie (now the executive director of the Integrity Commission), and the then works minister, Omar Davies, over the latter’s attempt to use a three-member Independent Oversight Panel to help monitor the award of contracts for three major projects that were not going to public tender. That effort, perceived as a bid to undermine the contractor general – an office not subsumed into the IC – did not end well for the People’s National Party administration.

Ironically, that quarrel was the primary catalyst for the clause in the Procurement Act of 2015, which allows the Government to bypass public bidding for projects it declares to be critical to “national development,” which is what has been applied to the Montego Bay road. This project, long on the drawing board, and of whose need there is consensus, involves the construction of a 25-kilometre highway along the north-western city’s hilly southern perimeter. It will ease severe traffic congestion in the heart of the town.

IMPORTED LABOUR

The road will cost US$220 million, which, initially, the Government planned to borrow from China. That would have meant the job going automatically to a Chinese company, which would have had the right to ‘import’ a significant chunk of Chinese labour and be eligible for other concessions. CHEC was the earmarked contractor.

However, the Government changed its mind about borrowing from Beijing, preferring, instead, to finance the project from its own resources. Nonetheless, CHEC will still get the contract, rather than it being open to tender. Prime Minister Holness has two main reasons for this. CHEC, he explained, has already done the design and engineering work for the project. It would be therefore unfair if, late in the day, the company had to abandon those efforts and cede its prior work to another firm. Further, the Government argued, a public tender process would delay the start of construction, now imminent, by as much as two years. Hence the administration’s decision to invoke Section 3(b) of the Public Procurement Act.

The political Opposition has questioned the process by which the Government sought parliamentary designation of the road as “a national development project”. It has also complained about an absence of transparency and of Jamaican construction companies being shut out of big jobs, an allegation that has resonated with domestic construction firms. It is against this background that Mr Holness, saying that his administration had “nothing to hide,” last week announced its intention to invite the IC to “sit as observers on the negotiating team”.

Said Mr Holness: “My own view is that we should be able to, as a Government, do this without the Integrity Commission. They would come in if there is an issue, but the Integrity Commission is there to give confidence.”

PROBLEMATIC ACCEPTANCE

Given the controversy, the prime minister’s wish to have the IC on board is understandable. Its imprimatur would enhance the credibility of any contract that emerged – or that is the assumption. Mr Holness, however, missed several reasons why the IC’s acceptance would be problematic.

First, a seat at the negotiating table by the commission, even if only as an observer, would most likely be seen as a conflict of interest, or the perception thereof. The impression would be that the IC was operating on both sides of the fence, thereby compromising its position as an anti-corruption policing body.

Further, while the Procurement Act allows designated “national projects” to be freed of normal procurement rules, it does not, on the face of it, extricate the implementation of the contracts from oversight and policing. Which is the job of the Integrity Commission. And, as the commission reminded, in the exercise of its functions, the body, in accordance with Section 6(3)(a) of its act, “shall not be subject to the direction or control of another person or authority, other than the court by way of judicial review”.

Acceptance of Mr Holness’s invitation, therefore, could have been construed as trespass on that independence. In this circumstance, we agree with the commission that “due care must be taken ... to ensure that it does not act in a manner which could compromise or perceived as compromising or undermining its independence and partiality”.

If there is need for the IC to investigate the Montego perimeter road contract and/or construction of the road, we hope it will do so on its own steam and terms, without cause for anyone to claim that it has been compromised.