stabroek news letters February 5, 2017

Dear Editor,

ruelI was originally only going to focus this letter on the alternative facts spread by Bharrat Jagdeo’s picayune ‘media empire’ (iNews/TVG/Radio Guyana/MTV) regarding the riveting fantasy of my fugitive run from the long arms of the law for a deliberately and clearly ironic Facebook status on the parking meter issue and what I believe to its parallel and its vast superior in scale, the Sanata complex deal, but events of the past few days warrant commentary.

For now, I’d like to assure the dozens of people who expressed concern that I would be incarcerated, that at no point was I ever wanted or contacted by the Guyana Police Force – my office is a little over 150 metres from Brickdam Police Station and I am often there until very late at night.   While the defamatory campaign itself was as laughable as it was actionable, my only action for now is to request that my former schoolmate and clearly former journalist, Guyana Times Editor Tusika Martin do me the tremendous favour of using a better picture than the one that made her paper’s front page the next time I am featured.

Now on the parking meter issue, what was an initial quagmire of poor public accountability is now perhaps predictably metastasizing into something with potentially dire consequences for social cohesion.  On social media, as reflective of the legitimate opinions of a significant number of the Guyanese population, this is increasingly proving a wedge issue with elements of race and class emerging to the forefront.   And what has started as a citizen movement is now threatened to be hijacked or coopted by the key player responsible for the quagmire that is municipal administration of the capital – the People’s Progressive Party – with a forum on parking meters being held at Red House of all places featuring a presentation by Deputy Mayor Sherod Duncan; Bharrrat Jagdeo at a press conference promising to rescue the city from impending doom, once returned to power; and the Friday protest attended by such seasoned PPP citizens rights activists like MP Dr Vindhya Persaud, former Minister Bibi Shaddick, and long term human rights advocate Jason Abdulla.  And on the other side, we have a handful of pro-parking meter activists with coordinated signs but no clear leadership and central message, although the crux of their defence of the paid parking system coincided somehow with the core message of the city administration.

For both those in support of and those against the parking meters, I urge that they view the essence of the thing.  What is it at its core?  Has there been a precedent to this, and what was our response then and how does it equate to our response now?

We have the elements of inadequate consultation, opacity with regard to contract specifics, a parasitic and inequitable public-private partnership, hazy legality hurriedly and retroactively installed, and the resulting burden on the state and its citizens.  In essence, Smart City Solutions is Queens Atlantic Investments Inc, writ small. It is a significant coincidence that the same day in which the print media reported on the anti-parking meter protest, we find out about massive, hitherto secret sweetheart concessions given out by the previous government, costing the state billions of dollars with little to no obligation owed by those benefiting from those concessions.  What again is the essence of the thing?  What is our response?

With regard to the citizen engagement on this latest thing, on the one hand, there is a shrillness and righteousness of some of those who have now discovered the capacity to protest, although there previously existed in essence exact or greater rationale, and they did not.  On the other, there is a compromised silence from those who would have protested similar impositions under the previous administration – indeed there were most likely several of those involved in the counter protest.  Both characteristics are unhelpful.

A quantum of our people have to come to a concept of informed, reasonably exercised participatory citizenship based on the essence of a particular thing or act, and not clouded by the implicit biases or explicit partisan or tribal self-interest dictating what we should nor should not object to. The citizens of this country need to clear a space free of partisan political, class and ethnic interests and renegotiate the social contract from there.  To do otherwise is to perpetuate our historical failure to launch, even at the cusp of a tremendous windfall of national wealth, indeed, one that could cement us into the swamp of civic incapacity in which we currently find ourselves.

That said, for now, the executive at this point has a moral imperative to decisively intervene before the situation breaks down irreversibly.  The new Minister of Social Cohesion, in particular, has a chance to actively intercede by first defining the fissures and then preventing them from further widening.

In closing, to underscore my personal perspective on this issue as first expressed since June of last year, I’d like to offer the words of Vaclav Havel, who said “The most important thing is that man should be the measure of all structures, including economic structures, and not that man be made to measure for those structures.”

I do not believe that the parking meter system – while not absolutely objectionable – was made to the measure of the citizens of this country.  In its present form it should be rescinded, publicly tendered after publicly available feasibility studies, and then awarded under a pricing structure that reflects first the economic reality that the average client citizen is subject to, and then a reasonable rate of revenue for credible investors and the city administration.

Yours faithfully,

Ruel Johnson