Monday, February 4, 2019
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamas Ferries was yesterday said to have pledged it will not continue using Marsh Harbour’s public dock in defiance of orders issued by its third largest shareholder - the prime minister.
James Albury, the Abaco parliamentary secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, told Tribune Business that the inter-island transportation provider had promised not to persist in using Union Jack Dock to fulfill its contract for transporting Baker’s Bay employees and construction workers to the multi-million dollar Great Guana Cay development.
While suggesting that the controversy had arisen from “miscommunication and misunderstanding”, Mr Albury said Bahamas Ferries’ pledge was merely the “first step” in addressing the wider concerns of Marsh Harbour residents.
He confirmed that Dr Hubert Minnis had given “a directive” that Bahamas Ferries was not to use Union Jack Dock, a public dock, for the embarkation/unloading of Baker’s Bay personnel or the berthing of its vessels given that this would involve using the facility for a commercial purpose.
However, multiple photos and social media postings sent to Tribune Business confirmed that Bahamas Ferries used the dock for exactly this purpose on Friday - the very day it took over the Baker’s Bay contract from previous provider, Albury’s Ferry.
This meant the company defied a directive from its third largest shareholder. Dr Minnis, who will have taken no part in the company’s affairs since becoming prime minister, is listed in Bahamas Ferries’ 2017 annual returns - widely circulated on social media - as owning 305 of the company’s 5,015 ordinary shares - or just six percent.
The government’s political opponents have already sought to cause controversy around the prime minister’s Bahamas Ferries shareholding, but the use of Union Jack Dock is just one of several concerns surrounding its Baker’s Bay contract.
Apart from fears surrounding increased traffic and parking congestion in Marsh Harbour, there are allegations that Bahamas Ferries proceeded to develop a paved parking lot adjacent to Union Jack Dock without the necessary construction/planning approvals from local government.
Roscoe Thompson, head of the Marsh Harbour/Spring City township, and a member of the local district council, told Tribune Business that a “stop work” order will be issued if Bahamas Ferries and its contractors placed fill on the land in preparation for tarring.
He added that Bahamas Ferries had also attempted to do an “end-run” around Abaco’s Port Department by applying in Nassau for the necessary ferry licence and other permits required for the boat it wants to operate the Baker’s Bay contract.
Mr Thompson said he attended the Nassau meeting to voice his objections, resulting in Bahamas Ferries being told it needed to make the necessary applications in Abaco first. It would only come to Nassau if that decision made an appeal necessary.
Meanwhile, Mr Albury confirmed that Bahamas Ferries had effectively ignored the Prime Minister’s wishes through its actions on Friday in a message to Abaco residents, which was obtained by Tribune Business:
“Good morning all,” he wrote. “This morning I understand Bahamas Fast Ferries docked and transported employees from the Union Jack dock. This was against the desires of the township, myself, and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister himself had previously issued a directive that they would not be permitted to use said dock.
“Upon becoming aware of the events I immediately contacted the Prime Minister and we are working together to address and remedy the situation. Please be assured the situation is not being ignored. I will update as we move forward.”
Speaking to Tribune Business yesterday, Mr Albury said he had received a written communication from Bahamas Ferries’ principals who had “committed to not continuing” the use of Union Jack Dock for the Baker’s Bay contract.
“That was the biggest issue short-term, but that’s just the first step,” he told this newspaper. “The situation, for want of a better word, is in flux. There seems to have been some miscommunication and misunderstanding, I’m willing to believe that, but that doesn’t change the fact we need to get it sorted out.
“The situation is still developing but the key thing I wanted to have established by the end of that day [Friday], I’m happy with that. I got something in writing. Essentially they committed that it was not a long-term solution berthing there and, even if they didn’t have a solution worked out, they recognised what the major concerns are and are willing to work on them.”
Mr Albury promised to arrange meetings between Bahamas Ferries and all relevant stakeholders this week to address the issue, which could ultimately involve a meeting with the township with the Prime Minister present.
However, there was little secret about Bahamas Ferries’ intentions. A note from Baker’s Bay management to their employees, circulated in January, revealed the plans to use Union Jack Dock and build a paved parking lot for employee and construction workers’ cars.
“On Friday, February 1, Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club and Starfish Construction will be initiating service with Bahamas Ferries for employee ferry transportation,” the note said. “The award of the contract to Bahamas Ferries comes after a comprehensive RFP (Request for Proposal) process, whereby proposal submissions by multiple vendors were reviewed.
“We sincerely appreciate the time and effort of all those firms that submitted bids. Additionally, we acknowledge the efforts that the incumbent provider has put in over the years to provide safe and reliable transportation.”
It then added: “The new embarkation/disembarkation point on Abaco will be at the Union Jack dock and schedules will be published shortly. The nature of the ferry experience will be changing in a manner that we believe will enhance the comfort of employees.
“The vessels will be fully enclosed air conditioned (when appropriate), equipped with restrooms and initially will seat up to 300 passengers each. Additionally, parking with 24 hour on-site security will be provided adjacent to the Union Jack dock.”
Mr Thompson said Bahamas Ferries was informed of the Prime Minister’s wishes by Montez Williams, deputy parliamentary secretary for Abaco, when it attempted to present its plans to the township.
“We had a big objection to them coming and clearing a large property with no permits and permissions granted,” he told Tribune Business. “That was our question. They didn’t have a permit and went straight to drilling wells and improving the land.
“I found out legally we can get a stop work order put on them under the Local Government Act. If they put any fill or tar on the property we will pursue that stop work order, petition for it to be included.
“We’re not trying to be aholes about it. We want to support local Bahamian businesses, but we want to make sure they go about it the proper way.”
Tribune Business attempted repeatedly since Friday to obtain comment from Bahamas Ferries. Despite multiple communications with Cameron Symonette, principal in Bahamas Ferries largest shareholder, the Symonette Group, which included sending him a long list of questions, no response was received before press time last night.