GECOM conflicted by financial setbacks, stalled LGE & outdated voters’ list
By Kurt Campbell
Unfilled vacancies for at least five senior posts at the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) have given rise to conflicts at weekly meetings of the seven-member Commission as the operations of the elections body grind to a halt.
GECOM has been facing financial setbacks for several months now and has not been able to procure basic stationery items or pay for the private buildings it rents.
Constitutionally due Local Government Election (LGE) is now stalled indefinitely and the Commission has also defaulted on its twice-yearly mandate to update the voters’ list.
GECOM Chairman Justice (retired) Claudette Singh during an interview with the News Room on Wednesday, has made it clear that the setbacks are largely because of the existing vacancies, including that of a head of the GECOM secretariat in the person of a Chief Elections Officer (CEO).
“As soon as we have a CEO, we will move ahead,” the GECOM Chairman said.
But People’s Progressive Party (PPP/C) nominated Commissioner Bibi Shadick said the issue of finance was a hot topic at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Interestingly, the opposition commissioners seem to think that [the Ministry of] Finance is stifling GECOM by having to make decisions on what money it spends,” Shadick said.
Although GECOM is a self-directed constitutional agency, the Finance Ministry has for some time been releasing budgeted allocations in parts to the Commission and with the support of the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board (NPTAB), major spending must first be approved.
The issue is compounded by the absence of a Chief Accountant for which GECOM is yet to interview applicants for the post.
“They [the opposition nominated Commissioners] were very happy sitting with the status quo when Lowenfield [former CEO] was there. They were happy with what was going on although I objected. They would send for money from [the Ministry of] Finance every three months,” Shadick told the News Room on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Justice Singh also noted that this system existed for some time but said the Finance Ministry has been assisting by providing an accounting officer.
“So we are getting things done because we couldn’t get things done… they [NPTAB] were telling us that some of the rented buildings for which the landlords are now asking for increases, that we should go to tender rather than paying rent to the same landlord year after year.
“These buildings are all registered buildings and in that case, we ask them to waive that requirement,” she added.
Among the financial concerns is that NPTAB has refused to continue paying for private security at the home of former GECOM Chairman Justice (retired) James Patterson.
This decision was taken although other former surviving Chairmen continue to see GECOM paying for their house security. Shadick explained that the decision was taken by NPTAB because Patterson’s appointment was ruled to be unconstitutional by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
Justice Singh, in offering clarity, said Justice Patterson’s contract specifically talks about him retiring and the benefits to be given to him. With his appointment being declared unlawful, the NPTAB has raised issues with offering those benefits to him.
The move has given rise to new objections to the agencies’ involvement in the decision making about GECOM’s expenditures.
As it is now, the Commission owes well over $50M in rent to landlords across the country; this is also an issue engaging the attention of Cabinet with approval being sought for the release of the monies to make the payment, Shadick noted.
“I talked about this for a long time but nobody seems to care,” she added.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT ELECTIONS
But that’s not all; GECOM is also under fire for its delay in setting a date for constitutionally due LGE. Although monies were budgeted for the elections this year, GECOM has not done anything to run off those elections. The absence of a CEO, DCEO, and other senior officials is largely responsible.
“We cannot go to any elections without a CEO. The CEO has certain statutory duties to perform and in any case, we have not done anything because we had to stop when everyone was calling for the CEO and others go,” Justice Singh told the News Room.
Opposition nominated Commissioner Vincent Alexander is quoted by the Stabroek News on Wednesday as saying that it will be another year or more before those elections can be held.
The holding of any elections at the time is also stalled because the current voters’ list is outdated. GECOM had decided that the voters’ list will be updated every six months through a process of continuous registration and claims and objections.
But this has not been done for the last two years. GECOM is also without a Commissioner of Registration and other key voter registration personnel.
“Nothing was done to get the 30th of April list much less the October 31st list… we have no valid voters’ list for any elections,” Shadick said.