The Wheels Go ‘Round and ‘Round: School Bus Contracts and Political Patronage

In the heat of the 2017 general election campaign allegations of corruption and mismanagement by Cabinet Ministers in the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) were ubiquitous.

Among these allegations were rumors of a lingering menace in Grand Bahama. A PLP operative had taken hold of a well-known government program by the neck and singlehandedly choked off any opportunities for those who refused to bend a knee to the ruling party.

The political patronage was so glaring that the very mention of the operative’s name seemed to elicit a visceral response by Grand Bahamians. Indeed, in the most matter of fact way, Grand Bahamians contended that the PLP’s electoral fate was sealed because of this single appointee.

On the other end of the political spectrum—and in stark contrast to what was perceived as unabated nepotism and political malfeasance—the core of the Free National Movement’s (FNM) campaign was a steady chorus of “transparency and accountability.”

Bound together like a verse and melody, this constant refrain was to be the pillars of an FNM government if they were given the privilege to govern.

We all know what happened next. The FNM was handed a sweeping victory and perhaps rightly so.

Whether the allegations of corruption were true or not, that there was even a perception impropriety signaled that there was a problem. And where evidence of purported wrongdoing was uncovered, brazen arrogance and cold disregard were allowed to parade in the street—metaphorically of course.

The promise of an FNM victory was supposed to mean that this era had ended. The arrests and court cases were supposed to be evidence of this. Promises of “[strengthening] the accountability and transparency of the fiscal operations of government,” procurement legislation, and anti-corruption legislation for all Parliamentarians and Public Officers peppered the Speech from The Throne.

It is not a stretch to suggest that Bahamians expected one thing above all else from this government—an end to the cycle of corruption and political favors, replaced by government transparency and accountability.

Unfortunately, this hope may be dead on arrival—crushed by a fleet of big, yellow school buses in Grand Bahama of all places.

The story starts with complaints from school bus operators who claim that government abruptly ended their contracts in an act of political victimization. These complaints even turned into a protest in Grand Bahama this past Monday.

In December of 2018, the government wrote to these vendors informing them that their contracts would be terminated two years ahead of schedule.

The Ministry of Education released a statement noting that “After numerous complaints and due to the cost of these five-year contracts, which were entered into by the PLP in 2015, these agreements were determined to be unfair and unsustainable.”

“Therefore, the ministry resolved that rather than renegotiate with more than 30 contractors, requests for proposals (RFP) were issued. It should be noted that the majority of the persons who had these contracts previously have retained those contracts through this new RFP process at considerable savings to the Ministry of Education,” the statement said.

The ministry also claimed that there was no inconvenience caused to students.

This all seems fair enough, but comments from one of the terminated contractors seem to contradict the ministry’s statement.

According to reporting from a local daily paper, school bus driver Kevin Ferguson claims the Minnis administration entered into new contracts with FNM supporters. He also claims some students were not picked up Monday morning for school because the man of the newly contracted bus drivers did not yet have buses to transport them.

In defense of the move, David Thompson in his capacity of Vice Chairman of the FNM, thought it necessary commented publicly on the cancellations and this is where the situation took a sharp left.

Thompson asserted that “Government policy for contracts was always three years until 2015 when under the PLP bus contracts were given for five years. All school bus contracts ended December 12, 2018, after three years.”

But, thanks to the excellent journalism of the Beyond The Headlines team at Eyewitness News team it came to light that this what not true.

In fact, successive administrations have entered into contracts with bus drives across a myriad of timelines—anywhere from one to five years. And, the first set of five-year contracts were actually issued under the last Ingraham FNM administration and were allowed to run their full term by the succeeding PLP administration.

The ministry claims that these contracts were cancelled because of “numerous complaints and the cost of the five-year contracts” but where is the evidence of this? Given the claim that the new contracts created substantial savings, where is the transparency? What do the new contracts cost the Bahamian people, how long are they for and how much are we saving?

Thompson went on to remind the public that under the PLP administration school lunch vendors were terminated without notice, however, it was unclear if he was drawing a comparison between the two processes or suggesting if the PLP could do it, the FNM could do it too!

Thought, the most troubling statement was this: “FNM members like all other ordinary Bahamians deserve a levelled playing field. Therefore, it would be natural for them as members of our community to have been selected to give bus contracts services.”

Does this mean that Mr. Ferguson’s statements are accurate? Are the new school bus contractors FNM supporters?

There would be nothing natural about suddenly ending contracts two years before they terminate and then giving replacement contracts to political supporters.

That is the definition of political patronage and past administrations—both FNM and PLP—have engaged in this kind of patronage repeatedly.

Every election each party promises to believe in Bahamians or ensure that it is the people’s time, only for us to learn later that unless you tow the party line neither will be true for you.

This is bad for democracy.

Noted political scientist, Giovanni Sartori, wrote that democracy can only exist where political power is not possessed by any individual or group as a right or used as a personal possession for private ends.

When political parties use the state’s power for their ends or for the benefit of their supporters, a defining characteristic of democracy is lost—competition.

Democracy, after all, is a competition to represent our collective sovereignty. That competition is essentially about presenting the best ideas, policies, and programs for those you wish to represent.

When administrations engage in patronage, people no longer make their political decisions about who to support based on the best ideas, policies, and programs. Instead, they support—and by extension vote—based on the party that will provide them with contracts, hire their children and promotes them.

This may be business as usual but what is so disappointing in this instance is that the Minnis administration built their entire campaign around ending this kind of behavior.

It doesn’t seem that I’m alone here.

Walking through airport security in the Sir Lynden Pindling International Airport on Saturday morning, a TSA agent pulled me aside and said that after seeing the Beyond The Headlines report he didn’t think he would vote again. He felt fooled.

If these claims aren’t true, the solution is simple. Fulfill the other promise of 2017 election campaign: transparency.

The ministry must detail the complaints which they claimed launched the request for proposals (RFP) process, make the proposals from the RFP process public, and show us a comparison of the old contracts and the new ones which illustrate the reduction in cost.

Until then, in the minds of Bahamians, the cloud that hangs over this incident threatens the legitimacy of the FNM’s campaign and even its election victory.

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