By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamian Contractors Association's (BCA) president yesterday blamed "sinister and unprecedented" political pressure for forcing him to resign to protect the group's advocacy efforts.
Leonard Sands told Tribune Business that the BCA's executive board members were last week warned that the organisation faced "dire repercussions", and exclusion from efforts to improve and regulate the industry, unless he stepped down by 12pm yesterday.
The now-former president said he had to "oblige this ultimatum" for the greater good of the BCA and its members, and that of the wider construction industry, labelling the developments as "exceptional" and "a lack of democracy".
Mr Sands alleged that the threats, and demands for his resignation, came from Omar Archer, the controversial and outspoken political activist, who has recently been appointed as Contractors Registrar by the Government.
He attacked Mr Archer as "a political hack who knows nothing about construction", and branded his appointment as "dangerous" for ongoing efforts to both implement the Construction Contractors Act and secure the best possible outcome for the sector in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations.
Mr Sands said that while "I cannot particularly point to the Minister" as being behind the pressure, he found it hard to avoid this suspicion given that Mr Archer ultimately reported to Desmond Bannister, minister of works.
Mr Bannister yesterday told Tribune Business he was "dumbfounded" by Mr Sands's allegations, adding that "the FNM does not operate that way; I do not operate that way". Mr Archer, too, denied Mr Sands's claims of government/political interference, saying he had no influence over the BCA's internal workings. "That's news to me," he said of the resignation. SEE STORY HERE.
Mr Sands and Mr Bannister, though, have clashed before over the former's public advocacy efforts on legislation to regulate the construction industry. The Minister of Works told Tribune Business earlier this year that he "detests" how Mr Sands was talking to him through the media over delays in implementing legislation to regulate the industry.
The Minister said then that the failure to implement the Construction Contractors Act was due to the BCA's seeming inability to nominate private sector members of the Board that will oversee its enforcement. Mr Sands has also been extremely vocal in calling for the Government to take a harder line on the involvement of Bahamian contractors and workers, or lack of it, at The Pointe development in downtown Nassau.
"Over the last few days it has been made clear to me and my board that my involvement as the president of the Bahamian Contractors Association is not in line with the wishes of those in political leadership," Mr Sands said in an e-mail statement yesterday.
"It has also been made clear to me, and my board, that if I remained there would be repercussions to the members of the BCA, which I cannot allow. Therefore, effectively immediately, I have hereby tendered my resignation as president of the Bahamian Contractors Association."
Mr Sands, who was initially nominated as the FNM's Bain and Grant's Town candidate in the 2017 general election before withdrawing, yesterday said he had resigned from the party as well as the BCA presidency.
This means that Mr Bannister has, within the space of a month, been linked to two controversies in which high-profile FNM members have abruptly walked away from the governing party - the other involving former Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) chairman, Darnell Osborne.
Asked whether he was blaming government pressure for his resignation, Mr Sands told Tribune Business: "That's exactly what it was. Over the past six to seven days, I got a communication from my executive Board members that they'd been asked to convey a message to me.
"The message they were asked to convey to me was that the BCA would not be allowed to be a part of anything meaningful in the construction industry by involvement on the Construction Contractors Board, or anything like that which the Contractors Registrar has some control over, if I was still the president. That has been the message from over a week ago.
"In no uncertain terms, it was told to them [BCA Board members] that if the resignation of Mr Sands did not come before 12pm today [yesterday], there would be dire repercussions felt by its members and executives."
Mr Sands said he was informed by his Board that "the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak", was his appearance last Monday on the Guardian Talk radio show, Blueprint for Change, which discusses construction and engineering matters.
"I was the guest, and I made the comment that we some to have a Minister of Finance in our government, we seem to have Ministers of Health that are doctors, but we've not had a Minister of Works that is a contractor or has a formative degree in construction or engineering," he added.
"Apparently, that comment seemed to rub someone the wrong way, and after that I was told I had to be removed from my presidency. If I continued to stay there, the BCA would be marginalised, and have no power and no kind of voice.
"I could take that happening to me, but not the Association and its members. I was given an ultimatum and had to oblige. They said to the Board that you have to remove him or the life of the BCA is over. That's a lack of democracy."
Mr Sands told Tribune Business that "this is exceptional, unprecedented what has happened" for a government to intervene in the workings of a trade association such as the BCA, which is independent and receives no funding from the Government.
Asked who had told the Board he needed to be removed, Mr Sands replied: "It is Omar Archer, a political hack. He had no prior idea or knowledge of the BCA beforehand, didn't know anything about the construction industry or the Act at all.
"He's going on the last 30 days of knowledge of being in the job, and determined the BCA president must be removed. It's very dangerous, unprecedented, the way he sought to have a president removed.
"I cannot particularly point to the Minister, but Archer is saying that his boss does not want to see Mr Sands as president. Who is his boss if not the Minister? He's been the one in direct communication with my executive team," Mr Sands continued.
"The communication the Board had with him was: Don't call me again until you have his resignation in hand. That's dictating. The last communication he made was: If it's not received by 12pm today [yesterday], he will communicate with the press that the construction industry will move forward without the BCA's contribution.
"That's a direct threat in clear and direct terms. I've resigned so I'm no longer the president, and have resigned from the FNM as well." Mr Sands said the BCA's Board members fought back and supported him, but Mr Archer "doubled down and said: 'This is not a debate. If you do not cause him to resign, there's no future for the BCA'. It's sinister, but it is what it is."
Mr Sands indicated that the threat to marginalise the BCA was supported by the emergence of a rival construction industry association, the Move Forward Contractors Association, which he said was "trying to position itself as the premier association".
This, he added, was despite the rival association being formed only 12 months ago and lacking a business office, forcing it to hold meetings at the Garvin Tynes Primary School. The now-former BCA chief said "a number of its members" are Ministry of Works employees or persons in government-appointed positions, identifying Gregory K. Minnis, who manages the Potters Cay dock for government, as one of the Move Forward Contractors Association's main drivers.
Mr Sands said it had been implied that the Move Forward Association might receive more seats on the Construction Contractors Board than the BCA, despite the latter having been in existence for 60 years compared to its one, if he did not step down.
Should that happen, Mr Sands said it threatened to place the Bahamian construction industry "in a really bad place" - and cost it "hundreds of millions of dollars" - because the BCA and its members would not be sufficiently involved in the WTO negotiations. He argued that the sector was now "in an extremely risk adverse situation" over trade liberalisation.
The construction industry remains the last Bahamian profession waiting to be self-regulated by its own Act, and Mr Sands yesterday reiterated that implementation only requires the appointment of the Construction Contractors Board that will oversee the sector's supervision and contractor licensing.
He added that the BCA had submitted its six recommended industry appointees to the Board, but had heard nothing further from the Minister. Mr Bannister, though, earlier this year said he had asked the Association to provide a revised list because there was not enough variety among the nominees.
Mr Sands, though, said further delay had been caused by Mr Archer's decision upon taking office to appoint a committee to determine "who the contractors are in the country". The former president said this task should be left to the Board, describing the registrar's move as "parallel to the law" and a "duplication of effort".