Integrity report presents scathing assessment – St. Maarten Parliament under fire

POSTED: 08/25/14 11:22 PM

St. Maarten – Many within and outside of Parliament doubt whether the important task of this institution is currently executed adequately. That is the mildest remark in the integrity report of the Wit Committee about the functioning of St. Maarten’s Parliament. The report contains a scathing analysis of the way the fifteen parliamentarians do their job. Unnecessary trips abroad and absence from meetings are only a tip of the iceberg.

The Wit Committee notes that evaluating the Parliament is not a specific part of its task, but it adds that integrity in the public administration cannot be discussed in its entirety without involving the Parliament.

“The public debate about the functioning of Parliament is so critical that a serious evaluation in the Parliament would benefit the authority of this institution,” the report states. “That there is no internal debate about the functioning of the Parliament is, however, a bad omen. The integrity of the public administration would be promoted if the representatives of the people would do more to fulfill its function as the critical controller of the government.”

The committee acknowledges that quality and integrity are two different things, but that there is also a relationship between the two. “In a Parliament that is held in high esteem in terms of quality the attention for and the importance of integrity would be emphasized stronger.”

The report criticizes a specific aspect of the electoral system – the fact that candidates are elected to parliament based on the votes they win, instead of based on their position on the list of candidates. “From a democratic point of view this may seem logical, but it (the current system – ed,) does not always result in the best choices.”

The Wit Committee furthermore criticizes the budget of the Parliament against the background of the country’s dire financial situation. “The budget for 2014 can already be labeled as generous (13 million guilders [around $7.25 million] for Parliament and registry) but for 2015 again additional financial wishes have been expressed. In terms of keeping a grip on state expenditures, the Parliament is absolutely not giving the correct example.”

The report notes that the travel budgets, expense-compensations and representation costs per Member of Parliament alone are “sufficient reason for questions.” Such questions would arise automatically in a Parliament with sufficient self-cleaning capacity.

The often-criticized membership of the Latin-American Parliament (Parlatino) has not escaped the authors of the report. “It is negative for St. Maarten’s reputation, when at meetings of Parlatino the smallest country has the largest delegation. A cut of 20 to 50 percent in the travel and representation budget would be a good signal to the rest of the public sector.”

The same is true for the remuneration Members of Parliament receive. For MPs this is roughly $125,000 per year before taxes, this newspaper has calculated. The Wit Committee notes that the remuneration is based on the assumption that membership of parliament is a full-time job.

“However, quite some Members of Parliament have, we hear, one or more paid additional functions. Up to a point this is legally allowed. Maybe this is the reason why some of them are hardly ever present in the parliament building.”

St. Maarten has to make a choice, the committee observes. “If membership of Parliament is a full-time job, it requires a prohibition by law on paid additional functions for MPs, the way this also applies to ministers. If the legislator is of the opinion that paid additional functions must be possible, then membership of Parliament is a part-time job. In that case the remuneration has to be lowered proportionally.”

The committee recommends establishing a public register of paid and unpaid additional functions held by MPs and publishing this register on the Parliament’s website.

Furthermore, the committee recommends controlling the assets of MPs shortly after they take office and shortly after they leave. This has to be regulated by law. The report notes that similar legislation exists elsewhere in the region, like in Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica and St. Kitts &Nevis.

Another point of criticism is the lack of a code of conduct related to matters in integrity. “Members do not call each other on their behavior. There is a mutual culture of laissez-faire that will be fatal for the public authority in the long run.”

As an example, the report refers to the fact that one of the MPs has made his office in the Parliament building structurally available to a criminal law attorney. “This attorney uses on his stationery and otherwise the address of the Parliament as his office address and he receives his clients there every day.”

The MP in question is Democratic Party MP Leroy de Weever, and the attorney in question is Geert Hatzmann, who has in the meantime moved to another location on Front Street. Hatzmann told this newspaper that he did not pay rent for the use of the office, but he declined to comment on the question whether he compensated De Weever with free legal services.

Another example is the absence of MPs in Parlatino-meetings. “Many delegation members stand out during visits abroad by their absence when meetings are in progress. Several MPs have traveled on more than one occasion abroad to attend Parlatino-meetings, while they do not speak Spanish and possibly for that reason are hardly ever present in meetings.”

Another example is the meeting of the inter-parliamentary consultation (Ipko) in The Hague. The report does not mention any names, but the discussion at the time was about the participation of independent MP Patrick Illidge, whom Prime Minister Mark Rutte refused to receive at a reception. “There was however no discussion about his very limited participation in the meetings,” the report states.

Another MP who caught the attention of the Wit Committee is independent Romain Laville. Again, the report mentions no names, but instead it observes, “that an MP recently negotiated completely unauthorized on behalf of the country St. Maarten about an agreement with Dominica. Subsequently this MP held a press conference where he was flanked by ‘his’ minister (Ted Richardson – ed.) and where he elaborated on the results of the negotiations. His minister received the instruction to formalize the agreement and to execute it. In the end the plan was stranded in the Council of Ministers. A positive is that the checks-and-balances did work after all. But it is remarkable that the different roles of minister and controller are apparently so unclear that it could come to this point.”

The report kills the myth – as often expressed by NA-MP George Pantophlet – that the Parliament is the highest authority in the country. “This way of hierarchical thinking is incorrect. In the democratic constitutional state, there is no such thing as a highest authority, but the legislative, executive, and judicial branches balance each other. Such notions of checks-and-balances remain underexposed in St. Maarten.”

The report notes that the negative reputation of the body politic is bad for the public administration. “In time it will cause St. Maarten economic damages.”

A last point of criticism is the lack of interest among MPs in training. “In many countries across the globe starting representatives of the people participate in introduction training for their legislative and controlling task. In St. Maarten, the interest in this is low. The committee regrets this, considering the level of remuneration and on the other hand the lack of know-how among MPs. That is socially unacceptable.”

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