Editorial | Transport Authority board deserves support
Joseph Shoucair and his board deserve respect and support for resisting the apparent attempt at politicising the management of the Transport Authority (TA).
The TA might have dodged the bullet, and the transport minister, Audley Shaw, will exit the imbroglio with a black-eye and sullied reputation. The incident, nonetheless, further underlines the logic of a system that ensures the recruitment of competent people of integrity, to be governors of public bodies.
In that regard, Nigel Clarke, the minister of finance and the public service – who has championed this cause and is charged with putting in place the scheme to give it effect – should, in the wake of this scandal, report on what has been achieved in the year since Parliament approved regulations to inform appointments to government boards.
The Transport Authority is the regulatory agency for Jamaica’s public transportation system. Among its responsibilities is the assigning of routes to buses and taxis, and ensuring that they operate in accordance with its regulations. By most accounts, it has been very successful at doing so, although that is not all the TA’s fault, given the many policy-related and structural faults that impede its efforts.
In early December, Willard Hylton, the authority’s CEO, who was apparently popular with his staff, left the job at the expiration of his contract, which he was not keen to renew. Months earlier, Mr Hylton had resigned over alleged attempts to undermine him. He, however, withdrew his resignation in the face of protest by TA employees.
Mr Hylton’s eventual departure, accompanied by stinging criticisms of Mr Shaw’s management of his transportation portfolio, meant that the board had to recruit a successor. Their choice, it has been reported, was Ralston Smith, the head of one of TA’s regions and one of four staff employees who sought the job. The evaluators, apparently, scored Mr Smith highly. He was to formally assume his position last week.
WANTS SOMEBODY ELSE
Mr Shaw, however, wants somebody else and, it seeped out, attempted to override the board’s decision. The minister’s man is Ronald Anderson, the authority’s general manager for operations, who ranked seventh among the eight people who applied for the position.
Mr Shoucair, the TA chairman, told Mr Shaw no. The board, he reportedly insisted, would press ahead with its choice.
Alwin Hales, the permanent secretary in Mr Shaw’s ministry subsequently entered the fray. He urged Mr Shoucair and his board to delay Mr Smith’s appointment.
Dr Hales claimed in a Radio Jamaica interview last week that he didn’t know early of the contretemps between Mr Shoucair and Mr Shaw, that he only gleaned there was a disagreement from a letter by the TA chairman to the minister, and, improbably, he insisted that he merely wanted, “as the accounting officer and permanent secretary to review the process”, ostensibly to ensure that everything was in accordance with the rules.
The presumption is that Dr Hales was in the dark, given, as he complained, that the TA board had “on many occasions” done things without informing the ministry.
Dr Hales, of course, will have to scale a high bar to convince anyone of his prior ignorance of his minister’s attempt at arm-twisting and ram-rodding to have his hand-picked candidate sit in the CEO’s chair. If he were indeed in the dark, something broke down somewhere. The transport ministry presumably has an appointee to the TA board, who would be expected to keep his or her bosses abreast of key strategic developments at the agency.
Dr Hales, in that respect, has more explaining to do, including about the reporting mechanisms between his ministry and the ex-officio members it appoints to various boards for which it has oversight and give broad policy directives.
The more fundamental questions, though, are for Mr Shaw. He has first to say what he expects is, or ought to be, the relationship between ministers and the boards of agencies that fall within their portfolios. And critically, he must give the compelling reason for him to take the extraordinary step of attempting to countermand the board’s appointment and have it supplanted with someone he prefers.
That Mr Shoucair and his board displayed backbone and resisted is welcomed. Unfortunately, anecdotal and factual evidence suggest that direct and proxy ministerial interference in what should be the preserve of boards and managers of state agencies is not uncommon. Mr Shaw himself, when he was agriculture minister, was previously in a dispute with the board of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, stemming apparently from an issue over the award of contracts.
Maybe in the current situation, Mr Shaw has information of which others are not privy. Perhaps the man he wants at the TA possesses skills that were not revealed in the psychometric tests and other analyses used by the TA selection panel in deciding on a CEO. In which event, Mr Shaw should share that information.
As things now stand, Mr Shaw’s action seems to be crass political interventionism of the kind that undermines good governance and opens the way to corruption. Or he believes he has an incompetent board, which would be a failure of due diligence, for which he would be accountable.
The solution to failings of this kind is a system that gives the government the best opportunity for selecting good candidates for board appointments. Here is where Dr Clarke’s reporting on what he has done will be useful.