Government should lead the way in respecting their own process, systems
The Government’s decision to tender what remains of the controversial $800,000 Vaiaata Prison project, as the Minister of Finance, Sili Epa Tuioti, revealed on Sunday, is the right thing to do.
But this should have been done from the start, in line with accepted transparent and accountability processes, the Government should have insisted upon as part of good governance. And yet the deeper we look into this project, the clearer it becomes apparent all the rules put in place to avoid perceived wrong doing and abuse of processes were ignored.
What is even more troubling and inconceivable is how this project was allowed to proceed despite the countless red flags that should have rung the alarm bells and where the line should have been drawn by the Government.
Indeed, despite the excuses we have been given so far, there appears to be multiple failures on many levels, involving a number of Government bodies and Ministries, including the Tenders Board itself.
To refresh your memory, it was only three weeks ago your newspaper revealed that prisoners had been given the okay to build the Vaia’ata prison. At the time, the Minister of Police and Prisons, Tialavea Tionisio Hunt, said that he thought the tender process was unnecessary since a company had not been awarded a contract.
A week later, the Minster of the Ministry of Works Transport and Infrastructure (M.W.T.I), Papali'i Niko Lee Hang, confirmed they have stopped the project.
"That is from our part, the Ministry of Works stopped the works because there was no permit," he said.
Asked about this, Minister Tialavea said work at the construction site started because he was of the view that working without a building permit “is not illegal.” “I made the call for the project to proceed without a permit," he said. When the Samoa Observer put to the Minister that under P.U.M.A. laws for every project, whether Government or not, they must retain a building permit first, Tialavea said: “To me, no, it’s not illegal. It was my call as Minister to proceed with the project even without a permit.”
Now those are not our words. How a Cabinet Minister felt that it was not illegal to begin work on an $800,000 project without a permit is beyond comprehension. But let’s park that there.
On Sunday, the Minister of Finance and Chairman of the Tenders Board Sili revealed that the plan to rebuild the Vaia’ata prison by prisoners, without a company or tender process, has been scrapped.
“It should have been tendered in the first place,” Sili said. “The current situation at the [Vaia’ata] prison, the [Police Officers] do not have an office and so it's best that whatever is left of the project should be packaged and put up for tender.”
Now even this raises questions. Why did this not get detected by the Tenders Board? Why were they inactive until now? Yes it’s good that the tender process is finally being honoured but what about a detailed accounting of that $800,000? How do we know how much is left of it, if any at all? In the case they have spent it all, does that mean the Government will be looking to allocate more money to complete this project so that in the end it could cost more than a million tala?
But this is the real spanner in the works. Last Saturday, the front page of the Weekend Observer, contained a story titled “Vaia’ata Prison project ran unapproved for months.” The story was based on documents seen by this newspaper from the Planning and Urban Management Agency (P.U.M.A.), which showed that the project started in early April, while the approval to commence work was only given in November 2019.
What’s even more interesting is that the works appear to have started soon after Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi and six other Cabinet Ministers attended a “groundbreaking ceremony” at the site. Now that says a lot, doesn’t it? How the Government can hold a ground-breaking ceremony, attended by the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers, for a project without a permit, and one where the Tenders process was clearly ignored, raises so many questions about the transparent and accountable nature of this whole saga.
The Tenders Board process exists as a check and balance mechanism, just as permits are required for the building code and safety standards. At the end of the day, all these processes play a vital role in the exercise of accountability, transparency and good governance, principles this Government loves to talk about. Any ordinary innocent member of the public would be taken to task by this Government for failure to follow the process.
Suffice to say; from what we have seen so far at Vaia’ata, something appears amiss. Some people need to be held accountable otherwise this carries many mixed messages that does not augur well with the Government’s attempts to ensure members of the public comply with rules and regulations.
Which is why the comments from Member of Parliament, Faumuina Wayne Fong, when he spoke about the project on Sunday, makes sense.
“The [M.W.T.I.] is always intervening in the building of families, even when it is just an outside kitchen, saying they want the blueprint, the consent and the permit from P.U.M.A.,” Faumuina said. “And yet, it is nothing compared to this (how they had prisoners build the project without a permit). I bet with the people of the nation now, they are thinking they should also be building our homes without permits since the Government is also building without permits."
It’s hard to disagree with Faumuina. If Government leaders don’t follow their own rules and laws, can you blame members of the public if and when they decide to follow suit?