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EDITORIAL - The Shirley Committee in the aftermath of LNG

Published:Sunday | May 6, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Writing in this newspaper four months ago, Peter Melhado, a relatively young, respected and public-spirited businessman, highlighted what he perceived as an "innovative" approach to public-sector project development and management in which he had become involved.

Mr Melhado used the example, he had said, not in support of the specific project, "but to reference one of the several modalities that I believe can advance our ability as a country to make sound decisions in critical areas".

He added: "I am not suggesting that we govern by committee, but I do believe that if we leverage our collective talents across sectors, the key actors could have access to superior information from which to make far-reaching decisions for our country."

Few, we believe, would contest the logic of Mr Melhado's observation.

By the way, the "innovative structure" to which Peter Melhado referred was the Government's steering committee of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, on which public-sector managers are bolstered by persons who run businesses. Mr Melhado apart, the private-sector members of that committee are Richard Byles, CEO of Sagicor Jamaica, and Howard Mitchell, the lawyer and entrepreneur.

That committee was appointed by former Prime Minister Bruce Golding in the face of public disquiet over the handling, including the efficacy of the tender process for the LNG facilities, of the project by the requisite government agencies.

Among the things the LNG steering committee initiated was an appraisal by private lawyers of the tender, which concluded it could not survive judicial review. Indeed, those findings were extensively quoted by the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) in its own investigation of the LNG tender process.

Public controversy

The LNG steering committee comes to mind because of the public controversy - including sharp objections by Contractor General Greg Christie - that erupted over the current administration's appointment of a three-member panel to advise on, and monitor, the development and execution of three projects, for highway and port expansion, without public tender. Mr Christie says he is opposed to the sole-source method of contracting because of its greater opportunity for corruption.

This newspaper accepts that there is not a direct parallel between the LNG steering committee and the new group led by Professor Gordon Shirley, principal of the University of the West Indies, Mona. But there are similarities.

In both cases, the projects should benefit from the analytic skill, negotiating expertise and business acumen of private-sector persons who are expected to be vigilant against attempts at corruption by their public-sector counterparts.

In neither case - as was evident from the OCG's robust probe into the LNG bid, leading to its eventual collapse - is the authority of Mr Christie's office, which is enshrined in law, constrained or fettered by these essentially advisory groups - terms of reference notwithstanding.

While providing a buffer against exploitative public officials, the Shirley Committee would help government negotiators to extract the best deals possible from the project developers. In that regard, they should help to deliver far more pristine outcomes that would better survive OCG probes.

In the event of inappropriate behaviour/corruption on the part of public officials in these deals, it is the obligation of Mr Christie's office to alert the public. For this, he would have our unequivocal support.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.