Belnavis: I never saw myself as a politician
Ocho Rios Councillor Michael Belnavis says he will be seeking re-election in the upcoming local government polls as he remains committed to serving the people despite being toppled from the post of St Ann’s Bay mayor earlier this year, dogged by allegations of impropriety. He also harbours thoughts of stepping up to the constituency level the next time a general election rolls around.
Earlier this year, Belnavis faced the heat after using taxpayers’ money to pay for a $80,000 charging port for his Porsche motor car he claims was being used for government work.
In June, he had told this newspaper that after the municipal corporation had failed to give him a vehicle last year, he paid about $12 million for the 2019 Cayenne e-Hybrid car to replace his BMW X6.
“I acquired the vehicle at my expense because the council was not in a position at the time to give me a vehicle, which is a requirement under law,” he said then, adding that the Porsche aligned with the Government’s focus on environmentally cleaner and safer transportation.
“There is nothing illegal,” said Belnavis. “I’m saving the municipal corporation money, and at the same time I’m being eco-friendly.”
In a recent interview with The Sunday Gleaner, Belnavis maintained that he was unfairly blasted by critics even as questions later emerged about a land deal and construction activities in Ocho Rios.
“[When] I became the mayor, we were doing well, but the situation with the car and innuendos flying around, plus the approach of the Integrity Commission was not a good experience,” Belnavis said. “In a country where you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, you are seen as guilty and have to prove your innocence, [with people] coming at you with their handcuffs based on hearsay and innuendoes.”
He charged that the People’s National Party (PNP) minority caucus also fanned the flames.
“The PNP would manipulate this when we have council meetings, especially with the media there. They would stand up and make all kinds of allegations and the media would grab on to it,” he said.
Critics would then “make certain assertions and accuse you without even speaking to you, calling for your resignation without asking you what is your side of the story”.
The former mayor maintained he did nothing wrong or illegal and he stepped aside to ensure the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) would be returned to power in the general election which was on the horizon.
“I did not do anything wrong, but it did not look good, especially with a general election pending and the Opposition focused on the topic of corruption. Most of my colleagues, including members of parliaments and councillors, have given me their support, but we all agreed that it did not look good, so I decided to resign to ensure that the party had a good victory,” Belnavis told The Sunday Gleaner.
VISION FOR OCHO RIOS
Six months earlier, Belnavis had walked proudly to the stage to accept the Best Resort Town award for Ocho Rios at the fifth staging of the RJRGLEANER Communications Group’s Hospitality Jamaica Awards in Montego Bay, St James.
“It was my vision to set a certain standard to be replicated throughout our major towns, and I believe the awards were testimony of what we were able to achieve,” he reflected. “We relocated all the vendors without fuss, which reduced the traffic congestion, and took control of the market space without any fuss or confrontation. [That] told me that we were doing something right.”
He added: “We also had a proper maintenance plan with the [National] Solid Waste Management Authority, and work was done in our major towns as well, on a bipartisan basis.”
Accepting the award was a proud moment as applause rang out from guests at the sparkling gala, which comprised top players in the tourism industry.
Belnavis was the JLP candidate for St Ann North Eastern in the 1997 general election, which saw the PNP’s Danny Melville coming out on top.
After Melville’s resignation, with a desire to focus on his business, Belnavis pushed his then assistant – Shahine Robinson – to replace him and contest the by-election in 2001. She won the seat and held it until her passing in May.
Belnavis then served as a councillor for the Boscobel division in St Mary Western for 10 years, before moving to the Ocho Rios division in St Ann.
“Having been a businessman in Ocho Rios for 29 years, people knew me,” Belnavis told The Sunday Gleaner. “It was a PNP division and I took it, won it nicely and I’ve been here ever since.”
The division is now a fortress, he says, with the JLP winning it by just under 1,000 votes in the September general election.
“We have done well in the division, so I will be going back to defend my legacy in the township.”
If he could have his way, a local government reform would see mayors being elected by the people and not selected by councillors.
“When the mayor is selected by the caucus of councillors, you tend to see the onus is on the councillors and not the people,” he argued. “You also find mayors coming out of a popularity contest, not necessarily the most qualified person.”
Belnavis told The Sunday Gleaner that he entered politics to empower lives but he did not accept politics as a career until recently.
“I never saw myself as a politician. I am a businessman, … but I got more and more involved and began to taking it more seriously. Now, politics is a big part of my life, and fortunately, my business is at a place that I don’t have to be present day in, day out, so I will be looking to make my contribution over the next few years,” he said.
“I believe that in moving up in age now, the next general election might be the right time for me to step up and seek to serve at the constituency level if the opportunity comes.”
He admits that the recent troubles that led to his resignation as St Ann’s Bay mayor have taught him an important lesson.
“My wife said to me, ‘If you need to profile as a businessman, do it, but as a politician you don’t crank up your profile. It is not just about the issue with the charging port, but generally, it is about humbling yourself to do the people’s work.’
“Being a servant for the people is a humbling responsibility,” he added. “I have learned from it and that’s the way for Michael Belnavis moving forward.”