By KEVIN COLLINS
Local Government representative
Upper Bogue, Eleuthera
AS many might be aware, there was a fire that destroyed the Administrative building and Post office in Upper Bogue Eleuthera in July, 2013.
Prior to the destruction by fire of that structure, a teachers’ residence directly across the street was given to the community of Upper Bogue in the Island of Eleuthera for the use of a library, community centre and the capability as a hurricane shelter for the residents.
However, to date, we have been strong armed out of the building by the Ministry of Education due to the relentless instance of Administrator Jolton Johnson for reasons that should never supersede the needs of residents in any community, on any island.
The following will read like a novel or suspense scripted from a Hollywood Blockbuster as I will attempt to re-enact my personal experience with respects to attempts to retain the use of the teacher’s residence in the community of Upper Bogue.
I beg the indulgence of the editor and you the reader as my story may inspire you or give courage to the oppressed.
For all intents and purposes, I use names of those involved to lend creditability to our fight, documentation of correspondences are available where present for perusal of all concerned.
I write from the perspective of a resident who was born and ran the streets of Upper Bogue barefoot and bareback completely immersed in what was typical of island life.
Our All Age School was a source of strength, a symbol of stability through its many activities. One such event was Sunday school, which had a huge impact on many of us throughout the district. It was hosted by Mr Willie Pinder of Spanish Wells. The residents were taught about the gospel of Christ, revealed with ventriloquists with inspiring testimonies, fellowships around campfires while roasting marshmallows, burgers and hot dogs all the while singing and dancing.
I am continually comforted by such memories which inarguably contributed to whom I am today. I seek only to develop and transform my community and the wider district by being the change I wish to see in my community.
At the conclusion of the 2012 school term, Principal Mr Jones at the North Eleuthera High School was transferred, leaving the teachers’ residence vacant.
Over the following months, I learned that the incoming principal, Mr Culmer, would continue to reside in his personal residence and commute to work daily.
It was at this point that I envisioned the possibilities of the use of the teacher’s residence to the community of Upper Bogue, which is still without any facility or even a recreational park.
I shared my ideas with the then acting Chief Counsellor David Armbrister, who was at that time performing repairs to the building in his capacity as maintenance manager for public schools on the island of Eleuthera.
It was suggested that I make a request to the District Education Officer Helen Simmons-Johnson for her input. I conveyed my request in a letter address to her which Mr Armbrister hand delivered.
Shortly thereafter in a telephone conversation with Mrs Johnson, she expressed her apologies and indicated that she had need of the residence for other purposes, namely for a teacher to reside.
Efforts to persuade her of the significant impact such a facility would have on the community and neighbouring settlements with respect to impacting the young people were futile.
As a result, I decided at that point to make my request for the use of the building to the Minister of Education, Science and Technology, the Hon Jerome Fitzgerald myself, using the same letter previously sent to the District Education Officer and with the assistance of Mr Clay Sweeting, candidate for the Progressive Liberal Party during the 2012 general election.
I received a letter dated March 6, 2013, and signed by one Andrew W Coleman for the Permanent Secretary, granting approval to my organisation the use of the building.
I contacted Mr Armbrister and told him of the ministry’s approval for use of the teacher’s residence. I took the opportunity to also enquire into the whereabouts of the keys for the residence. I was informed by him that he had returned the keys to the building after the completion of his repairs.
I then took a copy of the letter to District Administrator Jolton Johnson, asking him to forward a copy to the DEO, Helen Simmons-Johnson, as well as requesting the keys to the residence. He agreed, asking me to remind him of same in the ensuing days.
Weeks followed with me making requests to the Administrator as to the whereabouts of the keys, ending with him declaring that he was unable to make contact with the DEO. It was at this point that I gained entry to the building and changed the locks beginning preparation for transformation.
Then I made contact with Mr Theo Neilly, Member of Parliament for the North Eleuthera District, who pledged his support for the venture, and indicated that he would order several computers as well as printers.
I then contacted Susan Siel, long time visitor to the Gregory Town community, resident of Kenosha, Wisconsin, where she works as a librarian, and founder of Freedom To Read, Inc, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the development of individuals by donating books, providing internet resources, as well as web based seminars to name but a few.
Susan first came to Gregory Town as a child with her parents, returning every year now with a family of her own. Presently she has pallets of books and resources in the Gregory Town community in anticipation of a resource centre. Freedom to Read Inc has also shipped books to the Tarpum Bay Library and the Current Library to name a few on the island.
The organisation has intentions of expanding to additional Family Islands with resources as funding allows, as they rely on public contributions for growth.
I was introduced to Susan by Mr Neilly prior to him becoming an elected government official. I indicated my desire to have a facility in the North Eleuthera District to provide our children with needed resources.
Mrs Siel pledged her support at that time, and went to work immediately with book drives to collect material after I contacted her.
In fact, she had at that time secured books for the North Eleuthera High School after reading about the unfortunate fire that destroyed the building that housed the library.
James Gleason, a second home owner, secured the shipping fees associated with the import of the books for which I am enormously grateful.
All that was left was to pick up the precious cargo from the port of entry. Susan and her entire family were on hand for the pick up and delivery, firstly to the Upper Bogue Public Library, and then on to Michael Culmer, principal at the North Eleuthera High School.
Pictures are available at freedom to read Inc, website. Upon receiving our shipment of books at the Upper Bogue Public Library, energy levels were high, emotions were overwhelming as we explored the boxes with their treasures within. Donations were solicited for shelving, furniture as well as other essentials in preparation for our grand opening.
Plans were made to utilise rooms in the residence as an office to facilitate a peace and justice programme, initiated by the Methodist Church in an effort to intervene with at-risk students in need of guidance.
The building was to also serve as a community centre and hurricane shelter, as the community is without one. As the new school term approached, progress not moving along swiftly enough, I again turned to Susan for possible assistance with shelving.
Susan, being true to her nature, smiled and went about trying to secure material to assist us at the library. The results were 100 planks of termite resistant wood which she shipped down to Eleuthera, then travelled back to the island with an assistant in tow, collected the material and delivered it to the Upper Bogue Public Library.
We were proud of our accomplishments and ready for our gala event, or so we thought.
It was during this period that the community experienced a terrible loss of a building (the Local Government complex burned down on July 2), ironically, directly across the street from our library, a building whose significance I indicated in a prior article in the Eleutheran newspaper.
It was at this point that I now was alerted to a very real possibility of being challenged as to retaining the residence for the community.
Tensions became evident, my newly appointed Chief Councillor David Armbrister became hostile, already strained exchanges became more volatile and communications deteriorated.
It became painfully apparent to me that if there was any effort to save our library and community centre, we would have to fight for it, damaging relationships in the process.
It was circulated in some circles that the Administrator Jolton Johnson was making plans to relocate his office to our library, expelling the community to its own vices.
Others purported that the minister with responsibility for Local Government, the Hon V Alfred Grey, would make provisions to rent an office to accommodate the Administrator Johnson while plans were formulated to build a new facility.
I adamantly defended to all and sundry the commitment and dedication of the Hon Minister for Education Science and Technology, Jerome Fitzgerald, as it relates to any initiative established to affect the numeracy and literacy of young persons in communities throughout the Commonwealth.
He above all people is aware of the correlation of education to crime and social ills. I boasted of the minister’s stance on the work done to the Goodman’s beach and its possible negative environmental impact while he was in opposition.
I likewise defended Minister Grey. I outlined how I was inspired to use the plot of land next to the library for the purpose of teaching the children how to farm.
In fact, I was able to send soil samples to a lab for analysis to determine its quality. My inspiration derived from a farmers meeting that I attended as the local government representative in Lower Bogue a few months earlier.
Mr Grey spoke passionately about his desire to empower Bahamians to feed themselves. Surely Minister Grey would know what was at stake if Administrator Jolton Johnson, a man under his ministry, pursued such a course of action as circulated.
Frantically, we searched for some amicable solution to the need for an office for the displaced administration and the post office, both of which were housed in the former complex.
The solution presented itself in a two-storey government facility located in the Bluff, Eleuthera. At present, it houses a functioning post office, and has an additional floor that could have housed the entire office of the administrator. With minor repairs it would more than adequately supply the space required, and as a bonus, rent free.
An announcement via the Broadcasting Corporation of the Bahamas confirmed that in fact both offices were to be housed in the building where social services were presently located.
We, the community of Upper Bogue and parents from neighbouring settlements, breathed a collective sigh of relief. You see, despite being located in Upper Bogue, a resource centre would provide resources for Lower Bogue, a mere three miles away – and the largest settlement in the north with a high school which is presently without a library.
It would seem that a date could again be calendared for our library opening. Anticipation was again mounting until that fateful Monday morning, at approximately 8:30am, three weeks after the national announcement of offices being relocated.
Administrator Jolton Johnson phoned the mobile contact of Richard Johnson, my wife’s immediate boss, at her place of employment and asked to speak with her.
He essentially told her that he was coming for the building, ie the teachers residence, and asked her to forward the message to me.
She refused, indicating to him that I was an elected official of Local Government, and such a communication was unorthodox and unprofessional.
At approximately 9am, I received the phone call personally from him. He indicated the same to me.
I sought to understand from him why this action was being considered, firstly, as the offices were relocated already, and secondly, I had a document authorising me to occupy the building.
Mr Johnson told me he had contacted the responsible authorities in New Providence and concluded that no document existed giving me such authority.
His suggestion was for me to release the keys to the building to him, which I outrightly refused to do. The conversation ended.
I then phoned MP Theo Neilly requesting that he ask for an audience with the Minister of Education for clarification on the matter.
I additionally called the Ministry of Education, where I wasn’t able to speak with the minister, but was able to speak with Andrew W Coleman, the very same individual who signed my approval letter. Indicating to me that he was headed to a meeting with the minister, he assured me that he would inform him and get back to me.
Mr Coleman never returned my call. However, days later Minister Fitzgerald responded to Mr Neilly. In paraphrasing, he indicated his receipt of a request from Local Government for use of the building and under the circumstances he doesn’t see where he had a choice.
He went on to say that it was up to Mr Neilly and the residents of Upper Bogue to impress upon Local Government their desire for the use of the building, and he, Minister Fitzgerald, would be guided by the results.
I read that document and printed it for anyone interested in viewing it, in addition to my original letter of approval from the Minister of Education.
After reading the minister’s response, I felt that the community was given a voice into their affairs, and proudly residents collected signatures in an effort to solidify our resolve. I was concerned however, as to how a communication on behalf of Local Government could be sent to the Minister of Education without the District Council having any dialogue with respect to that decision.
Nonetheless, spirits again soared in the community of Upper Bogue, a new date was set to open – if we did it right we would be ready a week before the new school term began.
This was until I received another, more hostile call from Administrator Jolton Johnson.
He again insisted that I had no document to occupy the residence, and even suggested I may have fabricated one.
Once again, I tried to appeal to his sense of reason. He responded that he didn’t call me to go through all of that again, just get my stuff out and bring the keys.
It was at this point that my composure broke down, and I gladly did what my grandmother referred to as “blessing his soul” and ended the conversation.
Later that day, I received a phone call from Assistant Superintendant of Police at the North Eleuthera Airport, Hector Delva, requesting a meeting with me.
Agreeing on a venue, Mr Delva informed me of his visit from Administrator Jolton Johnson, during which he essentially ordered him to collect keys from me for the teacher’s residence. He also spoke of verbal disrespect to him on my part, a matter he intended to take before the courts.
It was at that time, ASP Delva said, that he produced a copy of my approval letter, which I had occasion to previously leave at the police station, having reported a break-in weeks prior.
I am told that Administrator Johnson again purported that the letter did not exist and that there was no one in the ministry who knew of its existence.
I would later learn that even in the face of an admission of the validity of the document by persons at the Ministry of Education, Administrator Johnson continued to insist it is false.
Small victory though it was, we in the community of Upper Bogue made no new plans, as this scenario was playing out like a Spielberg horror.
The following day, I attended the first Local Government Council meeting, some six weeks after the fire which destroyed documents, building blueprints, computer data for the district.
The venue was the North Eleuthera High School, where the atmosphere was best described as chilling.
After an emotion-filled opening by our Chief Councillor, during which he threatened to dismantle the council and asking the minister responsible to appoint a new one, in addition to other threats thinly disguised as statements to the entire council but directed at me, we got into our agenda.
Only there was no agenda, very few provisions were outlined to help residents cope with the fallout of the loss of documents, no mention of plans or provisions for the hurricane season, which I dare say we are immersed in.
Rather, we voted in a new deputy chief councillor, a position I held until the frightening behaviour of Administrator Jolton Johnson.
After this was done, the Administrator decided to regale the council of the previous encounter between him and me.
In an exchange between us which I can most adequately describe as a normal session in the Hon House of Assembly, I gave my account of the entire debacle, carefully filling in his omissions.
Again during his contribution he indicated that the letter of approval from the ministry was a fraud. Andrew W Coleman was the subject of an internal investigation, I coerced him into writing the letter, it was claimed.
Administrator Jolton Johnson was then flanked by Chief Armbrister who told the council that he sat in on a conference call with DEO Helen Simmons Johnson and Andrew W Coleman, during which Mr Coleman denied having ever written such a letter.
Mrs Simmons-Johnson had no knowledge of how I came to be in the building. I was now the subject of an investigation.
Flabbergasted, I looked upon the face of Mr Armbrister and Mr Jolton Johnson in unbelief over this display of hypocrisy. With the exception of one member who questioned the Administrator’s relentless pursuit of the residence when he clearly had alternatives, the room was silent.
What more could have been said at that point? It was then announced that the Administrator would be leaving the island for a vacation, Chief Councillor was leaving the island for a vacation and the council would convene when they returned.
The district would have to fend for itself the best way it could.
I watched as Administrator Johnson left that meeting clad in a golf shirt with a very visible firearm attached to his belt and I immediately reflected on western movies I watched with Clint Eastwood as the Lone Warrior.
At this juncture, it was clear to those concerned that based on the personality of our cowboy Administrator Johnson he would prevail in his pursuit of our library if it was the last thing he did.
True to his nature, two weeks after council meeting, I was again called to the North Eleuthera Police Station by ASP Hector Delva, where he took from a facsimile and copied for me a document addressed to Administrator Johnson in regards to the teachers residence.
I have copies available for any interested persons. In paraphrase, it read that in response to his relentless request for use of the building which the Ministry of Education had previously granted permission to be used by our organisation, he was given use of the building for six months, while the decision on our previous approval was being held in abeyance.
Mr Delva granted me two weeks to take out any items I may have accumulated in the building, as well as to do away with any work.
I remain grateful to him as his conduct was above reproach in my humble opinion, which made this ordeal much more bearable.
I used this time to exhaust any possible shred of assistance with regards to retaining the residence.
I emailed Minister Fitzgerald in my capacity as a Local Government rep for my community pleading for help. He never responded.
MP Theo Neilly, I am told, received the same treatment from both Minister Fitzgerald and Minister V Alfred Grey – stonewalled.
I reached out to Clay Sweeting, who met with me and has yet to respond to me – stone walled again.
Susan Seil personally asked for a meeting with Administrator Johnson, who agreed to meet at 11am at his office in North Eleuthera, but was rather at an office in Governor’s Harbour at that time.
Having to travel that way to another library she is affiliated with, she met with him in Governors, requesting him to reconsider his decision and to see if he could facilitate another building as his office.
I am embarrassed to say how that meeting went. Suffice to say that after stating that his government is broke and there was no other available building in the North District, he rose from the table and announced that he had somewhere to be.
One has to wonder though, if granted only six months of occupancy for Administrator Johnson, then why all of the demolition and reconstruction inside the building? Am I learning of a legal tactic designed to evict us from the residence with no chance of re-entry?
Meanwhile, the community of Upper Bogue is again painfully reminded as we were those 20-plus years ago, albeit under a different governmental administration that, in the first instance we don’t know what we want, and if we know what we want, it is not what we need, and even if we get the first two statements right there is always someone to make that choice for us.
The kind of official Jolton Johnson represents will fade away into oblivion as their use has long expired, but what of the children left behind, what of lives we could impact today by an encouraging word or gesture.
Are my children of no less importance than those of neighbouring islands, rocks and keys? It is my prayer that although lengthy, this document is printed in some media and that it may bring solace to some person out there struggling to make a difference in your respective community.
I pray that we get our building back as a token of the solidarity of those hard working residents of our community past, whose shoulders we stand on, and represent, for we must continue to be the change we wish to see in our community.
I continue to strive for that day. I expect there to be some heavenly yet logical explanation to all of this.
Whatever the outcome, we deserve a much of a chance as the next guy to succeed.
TRIBUNE NOTE: This is not the first time Administrator Johnson has been accused of upsetting the community of North Eleuthera.
Shortly after the election, civil servants there told The Tribune a “threatening atmosphere” descended over the constituency after his appointment by the PLP government.
Several government employees stationed in various communities and attached to different departments said they had been subjected to threats and intimidation on the basis of political affiliation.