Mon | Aug 10, 2020

Editorial | Belnavis, Morris should step aside

Published:Thursday | July 2, 2020 | 12:00 AM

MICHAEL BELNAVIS should have long since resigned his post as chairman of the St Ann Municipal Corporation (SAMC), if not his seat for the council’s Ocho Rios division, pending the outcomes of administrative, and probably criminal, investigations into his stewardship at the local government body.

Not far behind Mr Belnavis should be Rovel Morris, the corporation’s chief executive officer (CEO), who should be sent on administrative leave by the Local Government Services Commission while it investigates his seeming failure in exercising a duty of care and fiduciary responsibility to the SAMC, for which, by law, he is the chief accounting officer.

The SAMC, and Mr Belnavis’ role within it, need to be placed in some context. The corporation is the local government body for Jamaica’s northern parish of St Ann. It establishes by-laws for the management of the parish’s cities and towns and, among other things, works with national bodies in developing and policing zoning and planning regimes. An elected member of the corporation’s council, Mr Belnavis is its chairman by virtue of his leadership of its majority group – members of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which also forms the Government. His is an important role. He is supposed to lead the council in the development of policy, whose day-to-day execution is the responsibility of the CEO.

Anyone in Mr Belnavis’ job, a public office for which he offered himself, is expected to be high-minded and principled and, as far as possible, beyond reproach. Mr Belnavis, unfortunately, has caused questions to be raised about his character and his adherence to the ideals of his office.

Charging port scandal

Recently, it emerged that he had a charging port for his electric motor car installed, at the SAMC’s expense, at the corporation’s headquarters at the parish’s capital, St Ann’s Bay. When questions were raised about the propriety of the action, Mr Belnavis ranted about not having accepted entitlements for travelling, without providing a set-off agreement for the arrangement.

He may, it seems, have entered into a haphazard, word-of-mouth agreement with the corporation, of which he is chairman. Further, he is the person to whom the CEO reports. Mr Belnavis accused people who insisted on fiscal accountability of “bad mind”, or envy – the default, these days, of almost every politician who finds himself in trouble. This might not have been too bad, if that were all.

Building on public land

Recent events, though, reported by this newspaper, are even more egregious and cause grave concern. A dozen years ago, a company of which Mr Belnavis is the principal, in establishing a shopping mall in the town of Ocho Rios, encroached on a public park. The company, D&M Enterprises, was forced by the court, at the request of the municipal authorities, to demolish a guardhouse and concrete columns at the entrance of the park, which leads to the mall.

The company had to replace lights it removed. That park is again at the centre of controversy involving the SAMC and another firm of which, according to Companies Office of Jamaica records, Mr Belnavis is a director. A two-storey structure, not owned by the local government, and seemingly close to completion, was being constructed in the park, without planning permission or any reported transfer of the land to a private party. As questions were being raised about the development, the Belnavis-related company, City Mall Management, last month retroactively requested permission to complete the building, describing it as a wash station that would be of public good in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The purported manager of City Mall Management, and Mr Belnavis’ registered co-director in the company, confirmed signing the request, but implied he was ignorant of its operations. As scrutiny deepened on the matter, the building was demolished Nicodemus-style, overnight – without a statement from the municipal corporation, or any apparent intervention on its part to put matters right.

Mr Morris, in other words, has been silent. That, hopefully, is not because he is being cowed by his political bosses. For if there were any such attempt, he had, and still has, legitimate avenues through which to complain. All this has occurred while the Integrity Commission is conducting a probe into a seemingly high-cost contract for COVID-19 sanitisation in Ocho Rios. In the meantime, the effluvium from the SAMC is overpowering, toxic even.