Oranjestad- St. Eustatius- Today saw the swearing in by Minister Raymond Knops of Alida Francis as the ‘Deputy Government Commissioner’. Many on the island seem encouraged by the appointment of a ‘Statia-born’ person in a high Government position.
Although Francis does enjoy a good reputation with a relatively large group of people on St. Eustatius and abroad, the question now is if Francis, together with primary Government Commissioner Marnix van Rij, can bring about any real change to local government, in the relatively long path leading to the eventual return of full democracy on the island.
Why were Franco and Stegers replaced?
An intriguing first question is why Mike Franco and Mervin Stegers were replaced in the first place. Rumors about the replacement of Franco could already be heard for a few months. Most believed that Franco would be replaced by Mervin Stegers. Franco was said to be ‘disillusioned’ by the lack of cooperation from political The Hague ‘to get the job done’ and get some real progress going on the island. In plain English, Franco was rumored to be disappointed by the lack of funds to carry out the ambitious plans that were expected to take place on the island since the dismissal of the local PLP/Merkman coalition and the dissolving of the island council.
In all honesty, Stegers and Franco could have done a better job in certain respects, which have little or nothing to do with financial support from The Hague. The biggest criticism on Franco and Stegers was the total lack of transparency and an abysmal communication. Although a better communication was promised many times, especially by Stegers, it never materialized.
The functioning of the Advisory Council -or better said the lack thereof- has also brought a lot of discontent. Observers were very critical about the idea of the Advisory Council from the get-go. It never became clear, based on what criteria members were appointed to this so-called ‘Advisory Council’, other than being a ‘good cross section of Society’. However, meetings of the Advisory Council rarely took place, there were no minutes of the meetings held, there was no clarity about the impact of any input provided by the council members and council members were actively discouraged to talk about what was discussed in the Advisory Council. Not exactly an example of what transparency, accountability and good government should look like.
It should be noted that, even if there are many speculations, the true reason for the replacement of Franco and Stegers has not been given by Government in The Hauge. Also not a sign of much transparency.
Appointment of Alida Francis
The appointment of Alida Francis is seen by many as an encouraging sign, in the sense that a truly local person will now be co-responsible for government on the island, even if local government is still sort of a government-by-proxy by the Dutch Central Government.
Many on St. Eustatius hail the appointment of Alida Francis as if she were appointed to be the ‘main’ Government Commissioner, rather than ‘just’ the Deputy. Many also seem to expect Francis to actually make the difference and bring about a certain progress or different way of doing things, than was the case under Franco and Stegers. If this is indeed the expectation -also from the Dutch Government- a valid question would be why then Francis was not appointed as main Government Commissioner and Van Rij as her Deputy, rather than the other way around.
It appears as if Dutch Government wanted a local element in local government, but just not a leading element. The question is if this approach should be seen as encouraging or discouraging. The all-out appointment of Francis as the ‘main’ Government Commissioner would have, in any case, sent out a stronger message, than is the case now.
The big question is if Van Rij and Francis will be able to bring about a true change to the way the island is being managed now. Many are disappointed by things like the lack progress in road repairs and -we said it before- the lack of inclusion of locals in local matters and by the lack of transparency what local government is doing and going to do.
If the new team of Government Commissioners do not get more authority and/or more financial means from the Hague than was the case with the outgoing Commissioners, a valid question is if they will be able to bring about real change for the island. It is hoped that Van Rij and Francis, the latter especially given her background in journalism, will do a much better job with communication and transparency than Franco and Stegers have done. However, if it is just more or better communication, but with the same lack of tangible progress, the question is if the new team will be seen as more effective as the outgoing team was.
It is noteworthy to mention that Van Rij is described by observers on Bonaire, where he worked for some months as ‘an extremely nice person, but not much of a leader’.
A change to the functioning and the position of the Advisory Council seems imperative and unavoidable. As has been sufficiently argued, the Council so far is a ‘toothless tiger’ at best. New members to the council should be appointment based on a clear and objective ‘profile’. The council should lead by example. How can we expect the new island council to function on a higher level if a good example of how such a council can function was never given? Not even by a hand-picked council of ‘advisors’, without any opposition? The question here -again- is if Van Rij and Francis have any authority to make changes to composition and functioning of the Council, as they seem fit.
Absence of new generation of local politicians extremely worrisome
The dismissal of Local Government and the local Island Council seems to have totally demotivated and demoralized the ‘old’ generation of politicians such as Van Putten, Sneek, Henriquez, Zaandam and others.
The only political party showing some signs of life is the Democratic Party. However, hardly anything is heard from the other parties. The ‘blanco list’ idea of Glen Schmidt seems to have hardly gained any traction from other politicians or parties, and the Collaborative Platform also seems to have died a slow but sure and premature demise.
A truly burning question is, where the ‘new generation’ of Statia politicans are? If the takeover by Holland was inspired by worries about the lack of ‘true democracy’ on the island, the question is how ‘true democracy’ will function in the future on an island where most -if not all- politicians seem to have been traumatized by the Dutch Takeover.
Although new roads and more transparency are important potential short-term wins, the motivation, upbringing and training of a new generation of local politicians are even more important.
For if, when a new Island Council and -even further down- a new Executive Council are installed, there are no qualified -or duly prepared- people to fill the positions they bring along, a well-functioning and true democracy seems to be further away than ever, even worse than before the Dutch takeover.