Margibi Officials Go to Court Over Controversial Allocation of Social Development Fund

MONROVIA, Montserrado – Officials in Margibi are currently arguing their case before the Supreme Court over the controversial allocation of US$1 million in county and social development fund due to be remitted to the county by the Ministry of Finance and Development.

The amount was made available by China Union. China Union, through a 25-year Mineral Development Agreement to extract iron ore from Bong, agreed to pay through the central government US$3.5 million annually to be remitted to the affected counties, including Margibi.

Bong, which hosts the largest portion of the concession, receives 50 percent of the amount, while Margibi receives 33 percent for hosting the second largest portion of the company’s operations, such its operations headquarters. Montserrado also receives 27 percent of the fund.

Between 2015 and 2018, the company owed the counties US$10.5 million in remittances. But the three legislative caucuses had accepted a request from the company to waive US$6.5 million to compensate for the slowdown in its operations, which coincided with a global decrease in the price of commodities. According to the company, such waiver would allow it to immediately remit the remaining US$4 million to be distributed among the counties. Bong would receive US$2 million, while Margibi and Montserrado would receive US$1 million, each.

Following the lawmakers’ acceptance of the request, China Union recently made available the US$4 million to the central government. For Margibi, the US$1 million was not considered during its annual council sitting, which was held on November 14, 2018. The council sitting is when stakeholders from all over the county meet to allocate the funds.

A document recently leaked to the public showed that the county’s superintendent, Jerry Varnie, and members of the legislative caucus, except Senator Oscar Cooper, met in Monrovia on June 13 in what they referred to as ‘special county sitting,’ presided over by the chair of the caucus and the county’s fourth district representative, Ben Fofana.

According to a resolution in the possession of The Bush Chicken, the officials agreed that the US$1 million would be spent on project overhead and development priority projects that would be identified by the five electoral districts after district council sittings were held.

Superintendent Varnie signed the resolution on behalf of the local county administration, while Rep. Fofana signed for his district and the caucus. Except for Cooper, the rest of the county’s lawmakers also signed the document. They include Margibi’s first and second district representatives, Tibelrosa Tarponweh and Ivar Jones, respectively. Others were Senator Jim Tornonlah and Representatives Ellen Attoh-Wreh and Clarence Gahr of the third and fifth districts, respectively.

Eight other individuals who attended the controversial sitting and who signed on behalf of their respective districts as delegates were either local officials or individuals connected to the lawmakers. They include the county’s assistant superintendent for fiscal affairs, Aloysius Narmue; Aaron Weetor, a resource officer in the office of Rep. Clarence Gahr; the project management committee chairman, Thomson Nanah; and the project management committee controller, Baysah Kollie.

Others were David Momoh, who serves as financial secretary for the first district Development Council; the chair of the second district Development Council, Joseph Charlie; and Chairs of the third and fourth district Development Committees, Alphonso Flomoteh and Whykies Mentee.

Officials of the District Development Committee are usually those who have supported or have worked on the campaigns of representatives. But delegates to the county sitting by law are not individuals compromised or working at the will of lawmakers.

The officials agreed on a special allocation of US$50,000 or five percent of the total amount to be made to communities most affected by the mining activities, for projects that will enhance the recovery of lives and other damages caused by the mining operations.

They also agreed to allocate US$108,000 to what they termed as ‘project overhead.’ That, according to the resolution, includes a US$57,000 allocation for operations of the Project Management Committee and US$38,000 for operations of the county administration. Other appropriations include a US$8,000 special allocation to Mboo Statutory District and US$5,000 for support to the media. The officials further agreed to allocate US$168,400 of the remaining amount to each of the county’s five electoral districts.

“The said amount will be used on projects and program implementation of which, 15 percent, constituting US$25,260.00, will go to [the] scholarship program, 5 percent constituting US$8,420 will go to disaster management program and the balance 85 percent constituting US$134,720.00,” the resolution read.

The superintendent, according to the resolution, was also authorized during the sitting to ensure that the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning transfers the amount to the county’s account.

Meanwhile, Cooper, as the only lawmaker who did not participate in the decision, has termed the decisions of his colleague as illegal and petitioned to the Supreme Court for a writ of prohibition against the use of the funds until a regular county sitting is held in the capital city of the county as required by the budget law.

Margibi’s Senator Oscar Cooper. Photo: Emmanuel Degleh

The law requires that the superintendent, in consultation with the county legislative caucus, convene in the capital city of the county sittings of the county council any time after the passage of the annual budget. The law also requires the superintendent to ensure extensive publicity, through all media platform – radio and TV, print and social media – to encourage maximum participation.

However, the senator said none of these requirements were fulfilled by his colleagues in the case of the ‘Special County Sitting’. He said in addition to the violations of the law, the officials also refused to serve him any citation for the meeting in Monrovia.

“It contravenes the budget law. [The] budget law says a county sitting must be held in the county’s capital. That’s the law,” he said.

“The budget law does not have anything that says special county sitting. Read the budget law, section nine; it says county sitting. Then, it says you must have equal representation.”

Cooper argued that the selection of some of the eight individuals who served as delegates for the ‘special county sitting’ also violated the law. According to him, the inclusion of the project management committee chair and the assistant superintendent for fiscal affairs as delegates, for example, were proof of conflict of interest, against the law’s provision.

“The fiscal affairs superintendent became [a] delegate? How? He’s the same man that is signing the check; PMC man is the same man that is signing the check. How can [they] be delegates? Some other people there were not delegates,” he also argued.

Officials supporting the ‘special county sitting’ have used a provision of the resolution agreed upon at the 2018/2019 county sitting held on November 14, 2018, in Kakata as justification for holding the special sitting.

Count four of the November 14, 2018 resolution provided that any other issue or issues arising from the county while the resolution was already in implementation, “shall be handled with urgency in a joint sitting of the county administration, county caucus and heads of delegation to this county council sitting”.

It also provided that “such urgency shall be communicated into an internal resolution to the county superintendent for implementation as if it had been adopted by this sitting.”

But Cooper dismissed the argument, noting that the law takes precedence over the resolution.

“Anything that does not conform to the law, and in [a] breach of the law, is no law. So, the resolution is subject to the budget law. If you did something in the resolution that is conflicting to the budget law, the budget law takes precedence,” he said.

“And that count four ‘emergency’, what was the emergency? So, my question and the journalists’ question should be, why don’t you want your people themselves in their development agenda? Why?” he asked.

The third district representative, Attoh-Wreh, defended the lawmakers’ actions in a post on Facebook by arguing that they had to make the decision because they did not have time in their favor.

“It was because we had to make appropriations to present to Finance Ministry to have access to the fund,” she wrote.

“There has not been any disbursement yet, and we still need to meet with our constituents for [a] final decision on the projects to be done in the districts.”

If the intent of the emergency was to source the money from the central government, Cooper also wondered why the officials have refused to hold a county council sitting in Kakata that would be attended by the legal representation of citizens, now that the money is in the county’s account.

While count one of the June 13 resolution make it emphatic that allotments made at the ‘special county sitting’ would be spent on project overhead and development priority projects presented by each of the five electoral districts after holding their respective district council sittings, in order to validate the decisions made at the ‘special county sitting’, Cooper also dismissed that the law provides for any ‘district council sitting’.

The legislature amended the budget law in 2018 to ensure accountability and increase citizens’ participation in the use of County Social Development Funds. Cooper questioned why his fellow lawmakers who voted to the law amendment have become its violators.

He said even if he had been extended invitation by his colleagues to attend the ‘special county sitting,’ he would have advised them to have a county sitting in Kakata, as the law requires.

“The people must be involved in their destiny – in their development agenda. That is the intention of the Social Development Fund and the County Development Fund. It’s to involve the people. It’s not legislative fund, [for] legislative funds, [where] we decide which project we want,” he said.

“But how come these representatives’ hands just poking on the people’s money? They’re not supposed to be there. If you read the budget law, you will see that what we supposed to do, sir, is [to provide] oversight; we’re not supposed to pinpoint projects.”

He alleged that projects for which funds were allocated during the ‘Special County sitting’ are campaign promises of individual lawmakers and include no bill of quantities.

Fofana, who chairs the legislative caucus, declined to speak to The Bush Chicken on the allegations.

The Supreme Court’s justice-in-chambers, Joseph Nagbe, following a conference with Cooper and officials involved in the alleged violation of the law, ordered an immediate injunction against the funds being used until the officials accused can respond to the petitioner’s complaint.

Nagbe also ordered the clerk of the Supreme Court to write the management of GN Bank to freeze the county’s account until a decision is announced following the court’s hearing.

Cooper said all he wants is for a county sitting to be held in Kakata to decide on how to use the fund.

The assistant superintendent for fiscal affairs, Aloysius Narmue, told The Bush Chicken that only US$750,000 of the US$1 million had been released to the county by the central government. Narmue refused to comment further on the money and the allegations levied against him and other local officials, on grounds that the matter is currently before the Supreme Court.

But a source close to his office who spoke to The Bush Chicken on conditions of anonymity for fear of being reprimanded said a portion of the US$750,000 has already been disbursed to the administration of Mboo Statutory district.

The source further revealed that the county’s account balance at GN Bank account as of August 8, 2018, was US$743,576.

Superintendent Jerry Varnie and Thomson Nana, who chairs the Project Management Committee, also refused to comment on their alleged violation of the budget law, providing that they could not do so because the matter was currently before the Supreme Court.

Mboo district Superintendent Charles Kallon also told The Bush Chicken that he could not comment to confirm or deny the disbursement of fund to the district’s leadership.

Authorities at the Finance Ministry have also not responded to The Bush Chicken’s inquiry on the disbursement of the US$750,000, despite promising to provide the information.

Festus Tarpeh, a youth in the county, also accused the officials of violating the November 4, 2018 resolution, which the officials used as their reliance for the selection of delegates.

Tarpeh said the selection of delegates for the ‘special county sitting’ contravened the provision of the November 14 resolution which calls for a joint sitting of the county administration, members of the legislative caucus, and heads of delegation of the November 14 county sitting to handle with urgency issues arising from the county, while the November 14 resolution was already in implementation.

“In the original sitting, those who represented the various districts as heads of delegates were the one to have been present at any other joint sitting, like the one they held in Monrovia. But people who signed the November 14 resolution as heads of delegates were not the one who went to the Monrovia’s sitting,” he said.

“You have the PMC Chair Thomson Nana signing as a delegate, in violation of the law. You also have the Assistant Superintendent for Fiscal who will be implementing projects, signing as a delegate.”

He said the delegates at the ‘special county sitting did not reflect a true representation of the people of Margibi, as it is required by the budget law.

The budget law also forbids allocations of administrative costs of the PMC from exceeding 10 percent of funds allocated as County or Social Development Fund. Tarpeh said US$108,000 or 10.8 percent of the US$1 million was allocated as ‘project overhead.’ He agreed with Cooper that the officials need to return to the status quo and convene a county sitting in Kakata.

At the same time, the Margibi Citizens Alliance for Accountability and Transparency, a local advocacy group in the county, says the decision of officials and delegates at the ‘special county sitting’ contrasted with the priority of citizens.

The chairman of the group, Joseph Orlando Beyan, said the current priorities of citizens of Margibi is supporting C.H. Rennie Hospital, the Kakata City Corporation, and organizations of people with disabilities. However, Beyan said none of these institutions were scheduled to receive funding in the controversial ‘special county sitting’.

Joseph Orlando Beyan, chairman of Margibi Margibi Citizens Alliance for Accountability and Transparency. Photo: Gbatemah Senah

There are constant reports of electricity outages at the C.H. Rennie Hospital, while patients are often given prescriptions to procure drugs and medication outside of the facility, because of the shortage of supplies. The city administration of Kakata has also consistently lacked proper logistics to maintain a clean city.

Featured photo by Emmanuel Degleh

 

Gbatemah Senah

Gbatemah is a graduate of the University of Liberia and a recipient of the Jonathan P. Hicks Scholarship for Mass Communications. In 2017, Senah won three Press Union of Liberia awards: Women's Rights Reporter of the Year, Legislative Reporter of the Year, and Land Rights Reporter of the Year. In 2018, he was also recognized as the Land Rights Reporter of the Year.

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