Housing and Environment Minister Romauld Ferreira.
By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
A DOCUMENT about the transfer of portfolio responsibilities of Environment Minister Romauld Ferreira that was dismissed as “fake news” over the weekend by Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis is legitimate and was gazetted on August 22.
Critics pounced on this revelation yesterday to question Dr Minnis’ trustworthiness. But Press Secretary Anthony Newbold came to Dr Minnis’ defence during his weekly press briefing yesterday and said the gazetted document is real but contains errors. He said it prescribes to Dr Minnis responsibilities Cabinet never transferred to him, a fact officials only recently learned.
The document reports that responsibility for seven matters has been transferred from the portfolio of Mr Ferreira to the Office of the Prime Minister.
Because Mr Ferreira is a persistent target of rumours from the Free National Movement’s opponents on social media, the document over the weekend gave rise to unsubstantiated theories about why he was having his portfolio reduced.
Mr Newbold said Dr Minnis had not seen the document when he dismissed it as “fake news” in a short interview with reporters on Saturday, but had merely assumed the document claimed there was “wholesale transfer of responsibilities from Mr Ferreira to him with the intent to demote (Mr Ferreira).”
Mr Newbold said the only function transferred to Dr Minnis is responsibility for the Bahamas Environmental Science and Technology (BEST) Commission. The other matters - the Plant Protection Act, Wild Animal and Bird Protection, Natural History Specimens, relations with national and international organisations on matters relating to the environment, international convention, treaties, protocols and agreements relating to the environment and reef and blue holes - were not transferred to the prime minister as the gazetted document says, according to Mr Newbold.
His explanation made PLP Leader Philip “Brave” Davis incredulous yesterday. Mr Davis said all the matters Mr Newbold said were wrongfully attached to Dr Minnis in the gazetted document relate so closely to the work of the BEST Commission that it would “be very difficult to dissociate the work of BEST from those matters.”
Mr Davis suggested the administration is trying to excuse Dr Minnis’ previous dismissal of the document.
Mr Newbold could not explain how the official document got its errors but told reporters it would have to be corrected. He said he found out about the matter “like everybody else” when it was circulated on social media recently.
Asked if Dr Minnis sent to the Cabinet Office his written instructions of the matters that should be transferred to him, Mr Newbold suggested no such written communication was sent. “To my understanding,” he said, the matter was discussed in Cabinet “and people taking notes [wrote] it down.”
This too drew scepticism from Mr Davis.
“There had to have been some writing,” he said. “One would expect there would have been a directive in writing to the secretary of the Cabinet to make this instruction to the governor general saying this is how I want these portfolios to be allocated.”
Under the Constitution, the governor general, on advice from the prime minister, is responsible for prescribing responsibilities and functions to ministers.
“Any portfolio movement has to first emanate from the prime minister,” Mr Davis said. “That’s at his sole discretion and authority.”
Dr Minnis did not previously announce his new responsibility for the BEST Commission.
Mr Newbold said the institution was transferred to assist the government with investment matters.
“The BEST Commission was established to help guide the process of development projects,” he said. “When the Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA) was formed initially, it sought and obtained the advice of the BEST Commission, as part of its review process, before development projects were presented to the National Economic Council for its consideration. BEST would review the Environmental Impact Assessment presented, ensure that all impacts that could disrupt the environment were included and interacted with the developer to ensure that they were all listed. BEST then reviewed the developer’s Environment Plan and if all of these were in accord, then the project proceeded to NEC. Once the project was given the green light by NEC, BEST monitored the management of these impacts by the developer.
“Over the past several years this practice was discontinued and NEC made decisions about projects that impacted the environment without the input of BEST and such projects were approved ‘in principle’ subject to the BEST Commission. The cart was before the horse. Invariably, there were aspects of the proposals that impacted the environment that BEST could not support, but the developers had already been ‘approved’ and it became very difficult for the BEST’s objections to prevail. The Prime Minister decided to take responsibility for BEST so that as an agency under the Office of the Prime Minister, it could be a part of the review process before matters went to NEC.”