Re-call petition of Elvin Penner short of 79 signatures; 337 rejected
Friday, January 10th, 2014
Elvin Penner, the highly embattled Belizean parliamentarian and former Minister of State in the Ministry of National Security will not face a recall since the petition lacked 79 signatures as per the Recall of Elected Representative Act. The confirmation was made by the office of the Governor General after a letter was sent to the People’s United Party (PUP) last week. The letter indicated that after the Elections and Boundaries Department reviewed the submitted signatures, the threshold was not met because over 300 signatures were rejected.
Penner, the duly elected Standard Bearer for Cayo North East has been at the center of a major nationality and passport scandal that broke out in September of 2013. After much public outcry, Prime Minister of Belize Honorable Dean Barrow fired him from Cabinet and “invited” Penner to resign as a sitting United Democratic Party member of Parliament. After Penner refused PM Barrow’s invitation to resign, the PUP stepped up the heat and launched a campaign to collect signatures to kick start a recall process. On November 28, 2013, the PUP submitted a total of 2002 signatures, 258 more than the required 1744 from the 5815 registered voters in the Cayo North East electoral division.
In a letter dated December 30, 2013 sent to the PUP, it stated that the recall petition failed because it had“not been duly signed by the requisite number of electors.” According to the letter, after the signatures were scrutinized by the Government of Belize through the Elections and Boundaries, 337 signatures were rejected and only 1,665 signatures were deemed valid. The recall petition submitted was declared short of 79 valid signatures.
Before the signatures were submitted, they were meticulously reviewed by a team of attorneys of the PUP. One of the people at the forefront of the recall process is Orlando Habet, PUP political aspirant for Cayo North East. After receiving the result of the review carried out by the Elections and Boundaries Department, Habet said the decision was “disappointing” claiming, “we strongly believe that it is political maneuvering as we are certain that the Elections and Boundaries Department is political.”
Heading the review process was Josephine Tamai, the Chief Election Officer at the Elections and Boundaries Department. According to Landy Espat, the only PUP representative on the Elections and Boundaries Commission, Tamai should have used the entire act to address the recall process. “If she claims that so many signatures are not genuine signatures of electors, then she can implement section 9 (a) of the Recall Act—if indeed some persons are forging signatures—so why does she not investigate and take these persons to Court, as the Act provides for?”
The letter sent to the PUP noted why the 337 signatures had to be rejected. 52 did not match the records at the Elections and Boundaries Department. 52 were not registered in Cayo North East and another 52 were not registered to vote. The letter also explained that 11 entries had no signature, 79 petitioners signed twice (158 duplicated entries) and four people signed three times (12 entries). Of interest is that if the 79 that signed the petition twice and the four that signed three times were accepted as one entry, the recall petition would have been accepted.
On Wednesday January 8th the Belize Election and Boundaries Department held a press conference to address the issue that is of national concern. During the press conference on Wednesday January 8th, Tamai explained the recall review process in which she presented and compared the signatures that were rejected. The major scrutiny came in the 52 signatures that were rejected for various reasons, the main one being inconsistency in signatures. Power point presentations showed that the signatures on the recall petition were close to those on record at the Elections and Boundaries Department but because they were not consistent, they were rejected. No verification was made with the petitioners to find out if indeed their signatures were that on the recall petition.
Under the Recall of Elected Representative Act of 2010, Section 9A, “It is an offence to sign the petition more than once,” indicated Tamai when questioned about the 79 petitioners that signed twice and four that signed three times. Currently a file is being compiled to send to the office of the Director of Public Prosecution to review the case of those that signed more than once. However, the Act does not specify if committing an offence under the Act disqualifies a signature as was the case of the 79 that signed twice and four that signed three times. CEO Tamai said that over 50 personnel, including eight senior officers, reviewed the signatures, and some even went out to do verifications in the field over the one-month time frame mandated by the act.
Meanwhile, in a press conference on Thursday January 9th PUP strongly condemned the decision by Tamai. The PUP indicated that after quickly looking at the list of rejected signatures of petitioners, they have a strong case and the party will appeal the decision at the Supreme Court of Belize.
According to PUP Secretary General and a former Chief Election Officer Myrtle Palacio, the 79 plus petitioners that signed the petition more than once were “huffed” (blocked) of their democratic right. “They should not be reprimanded. There is nothing in the act that gives her [Tamai] that authority. No one has the authority to arbitrarily remove a voter from the list… Over 83 voters (79+4) were disenfranchised and stripped of their power and deprived of their right. The decision to reject their signatures has distorted the will of the people of Cayo North East to recall Penner.”
PUP Senator Lisa Shoman, one of the legal advisors for the PUP, pointed out that when there is no regulation in regards to a piece of legislation, it is expected that you resort to what is called “condition of fair proceeding.” According to Shoman, the decision to reject the over 337 signatures, were “unlawful, unreasonable and irrational.” She explained that Tamai’s decision was “unreasonable” because, by her own admission, there is nothing in the Act that gives her the power to reject the 79+4 petitioners that signed more than once.
According to Habet, “Residents are saying that their lives were threatened. Those that signed are saying that UDP functionaries visited them to say that their land will be taken away and no Christmas hamper would be given to them because their names were on the recall petition. So when the Crime Investigation Branch officials visited some of these people to verify their thumb prints and signatures, they believed that they were UDP functionaries and they were scared.”
According to PUP Party Leader Francis Fonseca, on the surface after reviewing the list of signatures that were rejected 140 signatures on the petition has been unlawfully rejected. “We need to tackle this in parallel tracks both legal and political… we have to deal with it with legally. We have an obligation to the Belizean people to take the matter to court… We will have political mobilization where we will mount an educational process and we will start in Cayo North East starting Sunday [January 12]…. We are in no mood to be in any friendly discussion with Mr Barrow. The Belizean people have given up on this government.” Fonseca told the press that in every instance that Tamai has been in a position to be fair in the good interest of the Belizean people, she has ruled in favor of the ruling UDP government. Fonseca went on to say that the PUP will internationalize the issue in which the government decided to stifle the recall of Penner.
This is the second time that such a piece of legislation has failed. In 2011, the Elections and Boundaries Department rejected a large amount of signatures that were submitted by Oceana in Belize and Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage in an attempt to trigger a national referendum. The two organizations submitted 20,160 signatures to have a national referendum on offshore drilling, but failed after the 10% threshold of national voters was not met when 8,047 signatures were rejected.
There has been no reaction from the social partners and the unions regarding this recent development.