Ombudsman Gwendolien Mossel addressing Parliament on Thursday.
~ Concerned about capacity in VROMI ~
PHILIPSBURG–Ombudsman Gwendolien Mossel said on Thursday that a comprehensive plan is needed to deal with the matter of noise pollution particularly in the Simpson Bay area. She told Members of Parliament (MPs) during a meeting in which she presented the Ombudsman’s 2019 annual report that this must be established in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice (St. Maarten Police Force KPSM public order), Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI (zoning) and Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labor VSA.
Her remarks prompted United St. Maarten Party (US Party) MP Claudius “Toontje” Buncamper to indicate that he is currently working with others on a draft law to tackle the issue of noise pollution as well as testing for intoxication and noise pollution, particularly noise pollution on beaches and at nights in the Simpson Bay area.
In outlining the concerns that exist within some ministries, the Ombudsman said she is extremely concerned about the capacity within the VROMI Ministry to adequately serve the public, seeing that it was already difficult to respond adequately to requests of the public and investigations of the Ombudsman.
“Now, with a lack of department heads and some department heads fulfilling their own duties and being acting head of others, the situation has worsened,” she told MPs.
“In the last presentation to Parliament, I expressed caution regarding the deficiencies of this Ministry, and as it turns out VROMI had the most complaints for 2019 with 20 complaints. VROMI has therefore taken over the notorious position (of having the most complaints and non-response) held by the Ministry of Justice since the inception of the institution.”
Most of the complaints were against VROMI’s Departments of Inspection, Domain Affairs and Permits. Mossel said VROMI is a dynamic organisation in society with the ability to generate revenue. Despite the large investments made to improve the Ministry in terms of hiring and training personnel, purchasing new materials (equipment, information and communication technology (ICT), vehicles, etc.) the Ministry has declined in the last several years in its service to the public.
“Backlogs have returned. The lack of proper (planning) infrastructure management (scheduled public works, roadside cleaning, drainage cleaning, garbage collection, road maintenance, proper sewage), enforcement of policies and laws as well as the absence of policies (issuing of lease land), a zoning plan and the constant change of ministers are great contributors to the present state of affairs,” she said.
“The public should not be negatively affected as a result of the lack of capacity. When enforcement measures aren’t consistently enforced the authority of government is undermined.”
Areas of concern include the fact that the majority of departments in the ministry are without a department head; the backlog in the Permit Department and Domain Affairs; lack of capacity, budgetary constraints; lack of enforcement: policies, laws; no policy for the issuing of lease land; no zoning plan (to mitigate noise pollution etc.); lack of proper planning of infrastructure management; instability in government (frequent change of Ministers) and lack of proper sewage.
As it relates to concerns with the Ministry of Justice, Mossel said the Ombudsman has been very critical of the Ministry of Justice due to its non-response to complaints over the years.
However, the Ombudsman positively recognises the efforts of the current Minister of Justice to address the backlog dating back to 2018 by assigning a liaison to deal with the cases from the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is presently finalising an investigation into the police’s towing policy which will be published later this month.
As it relates to the VSA Ministry, she said the Ombudsman is paying close attention to the social aid policies and the practical execution of these policies. The policies and procedures came under scrutiny in various cases and to date questions posed to the objection committee for financial aid remain unanswered.
In the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, the concern remains proper and safe access to education, and in the Ministry of General Affairs the Ombudsman has taken note of the changes made to the office of the Rent Tribunal to make it COVID-19 compliant, thus allowing it to reopen its doors to the public. “We look forward to a follow up on the recommendations as covered in our 2018 year report,” she said.
Mossel said that as she had been appointed Ombudsman effective January 1, 2019, the year report she presented covers the first year of her tenure. Under the theme “reaching out and empowering the people,” she said she had embarked on a community outreach programme by reaching out to the people of St Maarten following the many concerns about the recovery process and promises that were made to the people following the hurricanes in 2017.
The result of the outreach was presented in the report: “Home Repair: a revelation of a social crisis.” A short film to complement the report was also released.
Based on the findings in the report it was recommended that the present pace of home repair be improved and government should review the criteria for eligibility for home repair, taking extenuating circumstances into consideration amongst other things.
“The need for affordable housing must be addressed with absolute urgency. While this is primarily the task of SMHDF [St. Maarten Housing Development Foundation – Ed.], government has an equally important role based on international human rights law, specifically the right to adequate housing.”
She said no formal response to the recommendations has been made by government to date, and a meeting with the Council of Ministers and the National Recovery Program Bureau (NRPB) to discuss the report was recently postponed and has been tentatively rescheduled for next month.
The Ombudsman has taken note via publications in the media that the St. Maarten Trust Fund private home repair programme, presently in its third phase, is steadily moving with repairs to homes.
In updating on some of the persons and institutions covered in the Ombudsman’s report and film, Mossel said that while some persons are a part of the present third phase, others remain in the same situation today, as they are unable to receive assistance due to bottlenecks such as no assistance to catastrophically damaged homes and to persons who cannot provide proof of ownership of the property.
“These persons represent many others within our community who are also faced with mentioned bottlenecks.”
“I have been informed that the Transitional Shelter temporarily remains open, primarily for homeless seniors and a couple of large families who have been residing there for a long time as these persons are unable to make the transition because of the lack of social housing and the skyrocketing rental prices. As far as the St Maarten Housing Development Foundation (SMHDF) is concerned, very little tangible progress has been made.”
She said reports have been made and presented to the World Bank Steering Committee, and although approval was granted for some funds, these have not yet been released. In the meantime, the demand for affordable public housing remains dire.
“The status of the repairs of in particular ‘the Towers’ in Belvedere, which sustained extensive damage as a result of Hurricane Irma, remains at a standstill. While some tenants have been relocated, many remain living in the (dilapidated) derelict towers,” she said.
“No information has been received whether the inadequate repairs done by, among others, the UNDP have been addressed. It is very disheartening to see that three years after the hurricane, many are still living in the same condition, as if the hurricane has just hit our island.
“I believe that both the St. Maarten and Dutch governments have finally acknowledged that the execution and implementation of housing projects has been moving slower than expected and that creative solutions and a pragmatic approach must be employed moving forward.”
Source: The Daily Herald https://www.thedailyherald.sx/islands/ombudsman-comprehensive-plan-needed-to-address-noise-pollution