Days after being chastised over the quality of her leadership at the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (PATT), former chairman Christine Sahadeo has hit back, insisting the accusations were both unfair and unfounded.
Further, Sahadeo told Sunday Newsday the accusations levelled against her by former board member Ferdie Ferreira and current acting CEO Charmaine Lewis appeared to be in breach of the tenets of the Parliament’s Joint Select Committee (JSC), which began its enquiry into the operations of the inter-island seabridge, last week, at the International Waterfront Complex, Port-of-Spain.
She made it clear that the views expressed by Ferreira and Lewis about the conduct of stewardship were not the opinions of the entire board. Sahadeo also said the “principled” stances she adopted during her tenure were in keeping with her knowledge of the shipping industry and in the best interest of Trinidad and Tobago.
So concerned is Sahadeo about the accusations made about her conduct, she said she intends to re-appear before the JSC when it resumes on or after September 18, to set the record straight on several issues. The former PATT chairman said she did not wish to smear anyone’s character but felt she needed to clear their air on several matters raised by Ferreira and Lewis.
The JSC’s enquiry, headed by Independent Senator Stephen Creese, is one of four probes currently taking place into the sea bridge after concerns were raised, weeks ago, about the procurement of the Cabo Star and Ocean Flower 2 vessels, both of which were supplied by the Canada-based Bridgemans Services Group.
Enquiries are being carried out also by the PATT, Integrity Commission and businessman Christian Mouttet, who was retained by the Government to conduct an independent investigation into the acquisition of the ferries.
Mouttet is expected to present his report to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley in about one week.
At the start of the Land and Physical Infrastructure JSC on Monday, Sahadeo faced stiff criticism from Ferreira, a People’s National Movement founding member who served as a commissioner during her term as PATT chairman.
He accused her of questionable conduct and creating “serious internal conflicts” within the former board. Ferreira said he even went so far as to write to the PNM about Sahadeo’s conduct.
Lewis said subsequently there had been “a lot of interference” under Sahadeo’s watch, particularly in relation to her decision to use Kallco for maintenance dredging at the port, even though management had disagreed. She had also accused Sahadeo of changing minutes and acting as an executive chairman.
But in a Sunday Newsday interview at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies where she works as a senior lecturer in the Department of Management Studies, Sahadeo said apart from being unfair, the statements made against her at the JSC’s sittings appeared to contravene its terms of reference.
In fact, she singled out JSC member Nigel De Freitas, whom she said, felt it was not fair to allow comments to be made against her in her absence. “I thought that is really how it should have been managed, firstly, not to allow it because much of the banter that went on is not part of what the terms of reference of the committee is because I was asked, ‘Why I resigned?’ I don’t think that was a remit of the committee.”
She said given the nature of such public hearings “we need to be more careful in how we tread waters, because we were not summoned. We were invited to attend and therefore, I imagine you should treat your guests appropriately.”
A former minister in the Ministry of Finance during the Patrick Manning administration, where she served for five years, Sahadeo also had extensive experience in the corporate sector.
She was on various boards within the Neal & Massy group, and is a chartered accountant and practising attorney. Sahadeo also has worked as an external auditor and as an assistant to the Inspector of Banks.
She was appointed PATT chairman in September 2015 but resigned some 17 months later, in February 2017.
It was reported she had left because of the huge workload at the port and could not dedicate the time required to perform the job efficiently. But Sahadeo told Sunday Newsday it had become too “tiring” dealing with certain members of the board.
She again took issue with the tone of the JSC, saying: “I don’t think it’s fair because you have parliamentary privilege. People have taken advantage of it and I believe it is the Chair’s responsibility to make sure that questions asked are relevant to the issues at hand.”
The former PATT chairman added: “I believe that some of the issues and matters that have been raised, I am not quite sure of the relevance to the issues before us. Respectfully so, because I am saying it is an abuse in some in stances. People have used it as a forum for really it being a soap box.”
On the investigations into the procurement of the Cabo Star and Ocean Flower 2, Sahadeo said she did not wish to pre-empt the outcome of such probes by offering an opinion.
“I think each one gets a life of its own.” However, she said she hoped some consensus would be arrived at in moving the process to acquire vessels forward in the best interest of country. Sahadeo said acquiring proper vessels to service the inter-island route should not be a difficult process.
“But you must get the right configuration of the vessels,” she said.
Time to make port profitable
Sahadeo said in mulling over the operations of the sea bridge to make it more commercially viable, the board had recommended the implementation of a penal system for customers who cancel their tickets outside of a certain time period.
“Because what you had happening is that they would say the vessel is full and then you have a no show of 20 per cent (customers) if not more sometimes. So that was one of a small area but sizeable, and to me it would make it more efficient.”
Saying there was need to generate revenue to enable the Port Authority to be more self-sustaining “to a point,” Sahadeo said catering should not be a cost, but a revenue, “because you could outsource it. People pay for it and therefore, it should be a revenue item.”
She added: “Costs need to be looked at critically because I don’t think we looked at costs clinically enough. We also did not take time to differentiate the cost of moving cargo in terms of private, personal and commercial.
“We know we want to maintain the cost of living in Tobago but still feel the private entrepreneurs were getting away with a lot of very low subsidised costs.
“We subsidise a lot of other areas at the port. I don’t know if everybody is aware of some of these areas which the Government should not be subsidising.”
Alluding to the economic downturn, Sahadeo said the time has come for Government to quickly re-evaluate the operations of the port with a view to making it more profitable.
“Government just does not have the money and, therefore, we have to make sure that all our activities, as best as possible, should be self-financing.
“I agree that we have always had a subsidy on the cost of the sea bridge. But the question is, “If we give private people, allow private entrepreneurs to ply the service, would that competition allow us to be more successful? It is a question that needs to be asked.”
Sahadeo said there have been occasions when fewer than 20 people were on sailings. “It costs $100,000 in gasoline to go to Tobago. I believe we need to make a decision and pay the difference for them to fly.” She said efficiency also would redound to having the right size of vessel. “Because a vessel that is too small will not be able to serve the people of Trinidad and Tobago, but one which is in excess of our capacity is costly to operate and has a substantial drain on our resources.”
Moving ahead and in the interest of accountability, Sahadeo said there must be a rewards system.
“I believe we should reward people for good work but similarly if you cannot do the job, that should also be dealt with.”