Playing politics with lives

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May 10, 2015

A town meeting last Monday on the Rubis fuel leak had little to do with residents of Marathon and their legitimate concerns, and everything to do with politics. It was a stark and sad reminder that few matters in our beloved country go untainted by politics.

The meeting at Grace Community Church came just over two weeks after a government-organized town meeting at Holy Cross Anglican Church. The first town meeting was a legitimate information session involving the Bahamas Environment, Science and Technology (BEST) Commission, the Ministry of Health and Black & Veatch consultants. While there was a decent showing of residents, there were many empty chairs.

At that April 16 meeting, the residents who attended expressed anger that they were just hearing about the details of a Black & Veatch report, which concluded that a gasoline spill from the Rubis gas station on Robinson Road in late 2012/early 2013 could pose risks to their health.

At that time, the report had been in the government's possession for 14 months and had not been made public. After the angry cries from residents at that town meeting, the government released the report a day later. The obvious question that followed was why the government sat on that report for so long.

Fingers pointed directly at Marathon MP Jerome Fitzgerald, who told National Review on April 22nd that he read the report when it came to Cabinet last year, but did not tell his constituents about the details in that report because it was a Cabinet matter and he would have been fired. The statement landed Fitzgerald in even hotter water.

While Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson was also under fire for holding onto the report for so long, it was the statement from the member of Parliament that worsened an already horrific situation. Fitzgerald was in the middle of a political firestorm. He had let down many constituents. He appeared uncaring. He had failed to speak to the issue in the House of Assembly. This brought into question the sincerity of his environmental advocacy while in opposition.

Fitzgerald was on a crusade to convince us that the Ingraham administration's decision to relocate the container shipping port to Arawak Cay was having a detrimental impact on Saunders Beach.

The Rubis affair has left many questioning whether the MP is more concerned about sand than human lives, and in fact, whether he was ever really concerned about sand in the first place. Amidst the political beating, Fitzgerald, however, kept his knives sharpened. He was ready to fight back. So when the town meeting was called last Monday, he recognized the political undercurrents. He came prepared.

'Fitzgerald cares'
The meeting was heavily advertised by a group calling itself Marathon Residents Committee. It quickly devolved into a clash of political operatives. Unlike the April 16th town meeting, Fitzgerald and Environment Minister Kenred Dorsett both spoke to the audience on Monday night. Fitzgerald sat in the front row with supporters. Dorsett was a member of the panel along with Dr. Sy Coolidge Pierre; former Minister of State for the Environment Phenton Neymour, and environmental lawyer Romauld Ferreira.

The strongest presence in the room was from Fitzgerald's supporters, who were determined to ensure the meeting did not turn into an event to bash the minister.

The town meeting was held under the theme "Justice for Marathon". It quickly became a raucous affair with Fitzgerald's supporters booing some of those who went to the mic to ask questions. Many residents could not get inside the meeting.

One woman was held at gunpoint and robbed after walking back to her car because she could not get inside the hall. By the end of the town meeting, the event had clearly gone off the tracks.
Cable Bahamas, which was recording the event for a later broadcast, quickly brought the meeting to a close when it lost focus.

At the close of the meeting, PLP supporters shouted, "Fitzgerald cares" and declared he will be re-elected the next member of Parliament for Marathon. It was a disgraceful political display amid the worries that still lingered among residents who live near the Rubis gas station.

From what we saw, many people were bused to the meeting. There was clear orchestration from the PLP, but also from the FNM, whose council members were out in full support. Fitzgerald told us that he never received an invitation to the town meeting.

"There is no doubt just like [Environment Minister Kenred Dorsett] there was never an intention for us to be present but they wanted to say they sent us an invite," he said.

Information presented to us showed that the Marathon Residents Committee addressed a letter to Fitzgerald on April 28th. It shows his office received it a day later. Letters of invitation were also sent to Dorsett and Minister of Health Dr. Perry Gomez. Gomez was not at the meeting.

"I can confirm with you Minister Dorsett was invited with no name, no contact number and only that someone would contact him," Fitzgerald told us.

Copies of the letters received by National Review confirm they had no names and no contact information. Following the town meeting, many PLPs shared information on social media, claiming the town meeting was never meant to be anything other than a political event, as it was organized by an FNM, Latoya Hanna. When we contacted Hanna, she denied that the event was a political meeting, but acknowledged she is an FNM.

"I've never hid that I'm an FNM, but this has nothing to do with my political affiliation, this has nothing to do with my political preference," Hanna said. "At the end of the day we are looking at lives being lost; we are looking at lives potentially being lost.

"My mother has been epileptic for 25 years and now to be exposed to carcinogens, I can't imagine the kind of health risks she was exposed to."

Hanna said she is a resident of Marathon and is genuinely concerned about the gasoline leak, as are many other residents. She said she worked along with Aaron Forbes to organize the meeting.

When asked who paid for the advertising, the T-shirts and everything else associated with the town meeting that cost money, Hanna said area business people and residents covered all costs. Some items were donated.

While FNM Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis, FNM Chairman Michael Pintard and others were inside the meeting, other FNMs could not get in. They walked through the crowd outside the hall, along with PLPs, community activists, Marathon residents and other concerned Bahamians who also could not get inside the room.

Pintard, who in March raised the issue of the Rubis fuel leak in the Senate weeks before it became a national issue, admitted that the party had considered organizing a town meeting. But he insisted that it did not organize the meeting last Monday. He said as far as he knew, that meeting was intended to be apolitical.

"The party's involvement was to simply provide any support that the organizing committee was minded to ask for, a committee that we were informed was made up of members of all political parties, and that support included not holding a town meeting that was organized under an FNM banner, because the view of those residents who were interested in having an informative and educational town meeting was that a town meeting organized by a single political party may have discouraged members of other political organizations from attending and getting the information that was needed to save their lives and to remediate the dire situation the community was facing," he said.

"And while there were members of the Free National Movement who felt that we should organize such a town meeting under the FNM banner, we saw the wisdom in supporting an apolitical town meeting and our recommendation was consistent with the views of those persons who sat on the committee which was that all stakeholders, especially government officials, should have a voice about the role their agency played and would play going forward."

The town meeting was hosted by attorney and talk show host, Jeffrey Lloyd, who also hosted the first town meeting. Lloyd told National Review that when he agreed to be the moderator for the meeting on Monday, he had no idea it would take on the political tone it took on.

"I think the town meeting was an excellent idea for the benefit of the residents of Marathon," he said. "I think it was unfortunate that there eventually appeared to be political overtones. I can't say who may have orchestrated those political overtones."

Lloyd noted that many Marathon residents came to the meeting with the clear intention of getting answers and left frustrated.

"It was indisputable to me that the event assumed this political [tone]," he said. "I agreed to host an informational meeting in which scientist Dr. Sy Pierre; ecologist Romauld Ferreira and chemical engineer Phenton Neymour, would present information.

"I was never informed nor would agree to participate in an event that would be clothed in political garments because as a resident of Marathon myself, and as one whose relatives have been immediately, directly and devastatingly affected (by illnesses), I could not accommodate the charade that eventually obtained."

Click here to read more at The Nassau Guardian

News date : 05/10/2015    Category : About Bahamians, Politics, Nassau Guardian Stories

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