Friday, July 10, 2020

Gaborone Mayor illegally and mysteriously allocated billboard space

A Gaborone City Council investigation report shows that the Mayor, Kagiso Thutlwe, lied to internal auditors about unlawful billboard allocation that deprived the Council of revenue that one account estimates at P3 million.As Sunday Standard reported in March this year, Thutlwe allocated three companies billboard advertising space on dubious grounds in September 2017. This and other actions resulted in a motion by Specially-Elected Councillor, Kagiso Ntime. The motion’s exact wording was as follows: “That there be an internal audit of the Physical Planning Committee, His Worship the Mayor’s Office and the Accounts Department to ascertain the validity of allegations of malpractices and maladministration amounting to corruption.”

After the motion gained passage, the Town Clerk ordered a special audit to determine whether the advertising space had been allocated unlawfully as had been alleged. The audit covered the period from September 2017 to June 2019.In a report that was presented to the Full Council last Tuesday, the investigators state that allegations made against the mayor are indeed true – that he unlawfully allocated advertising space to three companies in contravention of the law. The companies are Master Carpentry & Joinery, Jun Bud Holdings and Goleba Out Door. This allocation was done on the back of a falsified resolution which itself had not been cleared through the Full Council as local government processes require.

A sample letter to Master Carpentry & Joinery reads in full: “Reference is made in regard to your appeal to the Office of the Mayor concerning billboard applications. We have applied our mind in your matter and took it to the Executive Committee for consideration in its sitting on the 12 September 2017. The Executive Committee resolved to take deliberate steps to radically empower the marginalised groups. In reference, 30 percent was a reserved minimum to each company owned by verified marginalised groups thus it was resolved to a minimum of 12 sites approved to Master Carpentry & Joinery (Pty) Ltd as per your request (applications) as a pilot and as government affirmative action to reserve 30 percent for the marginalised groups being women, youth and disabled persons. You are advised to liaise with Physical Planning Department to facilitate with immediate effect.”The same letter and quota went to Jun Bud Holdings while Goleba Out Door got 10 (not 12 sites) like the other two companies.The mayor doesn’t have the option of claiming that “we” in the second sentence is royal because he acted alone.

The Executive Committee never made any resolution to favour the three companies under any special dispensation and the figures quoted in the letter were merely plucked out of the air.  One of the people that the investigators interviewed was the former GCC Town Clerk, Mpho Mathe, who was part of the Executive Committee that Thutlwe claimed to have consulted. Mathe disavowed knowledge of the resolution that Thutlwe referred to in his letter.The audit report says the following: “Although the Executive Committee suggested that in allocating new spaces for erection of billboards, the marginalised groups like youth be given priority, no resolution was taken to reserve and allocate spaces.

The former Town Clerk responded by indicating that there was no exact number of available spaces that could be allocated.”Naturally, the investigators sought minutes of that meeting but met what appears to have been resistance from Town Hall’s powers-that-be. The report notes as the only “limitation”, minutes of this meeting taking “two full weeks” to be submitted to the Audit Office.A close reading of the report also shows that as used in Thutlwe’s letter, “appeal” is itself deceptive because the Office of Physical Planning never gave any feedback to the companies after they put in applications.

“The Office informed audit that the three mentioned companies have submitted applications for advertising sites but they were still to be considered by the Physical Planning Committee,” reads the report, which was prepared by two internal auditors, checked by a Principal Internal Auditor and Senior Internal Auditor and reviewed by the Acting Chief Internal Auditor.An appeal can only occur after the Committee had rejected an application but as the report states in very clear terms, the Committee has not even considered the applications.Around the time that the Audit Committee was investing this matter, Sunday Standard interviewed the Marulamantsi Councillor and Deputy Chairperson of the Physical Planning Committee, Sergeant Kgosietsile, who asserted that Thutlwe had usurped his Committee’s powers. Indeed, the Town and Country Planning Act confers power and authority to deal with the issue at hand on the GCC Physical Planning Committee and not on the mayor’s office.

The audit report levels a related charge at Thutlwe – that he contravened the Code of Conduct for Councillors which states that councillors shouldn’t interfere in the management or operations of any Council department: “Audit is therefore of the view that the Mayor has interfered in the operations of the Physical Planning Committee by writing letters which could have been written by the Committee (if need be) to its clients.” It advises Thutlwe to “desist from writing letters to external parties/clients [and instead] go through the Office of the Town Clerk.”Our information is that having earlier given investigators the run-around, Mayor Thutlwe ultimately ran out of options and submitted to an interview. During this interview, he told investigators that he did not allocate advertising space to the three companies but referred them to the Physical Planning Department.

These assertions were blatant lies that are contradicted by the September 17, 2017 letter that he wrote himself. As a matter of fact, the auditors themselves reached the same conclusion but used a different set of words: “According to our interpretation of the letter written by the Mayor to the mentioned companies, he indeed allocated advertising space to them. No resolution was made by the Executive Committee to reserve advertising space to the marginalised groups, therefore the Mayor acted outside his jurisdiction. During the Executive Committee meeting held on September 14, 2017 (as per minutes) the then Town Clerk indicated that there was no exact number of available spaces that could be allocated, therefore informing the companies that certain numbers (10, 12 and 12) of advertising spaces was reserved to them, the Mayor’s letter contradicted what was discussed in the meeting.”

It doesn’t look like the investigators sought to glean information about the criteria that Thutlwe used for his special-dispensation allocation. While his letter makes a point about empowering the marginalised groups he identifies, only three companies benefitted – minus the nuisance of a competitive bidding process. On the face of it, the letter conveys sentiment that this dispensation was not about targeting individuals within those groups but everybody. From what Sunday Standard learns though, the decision to reserve 30 percent of outdoor advertising space to stated marginalised groups was never formally communicated to those groups – only to the three companies in question.

Odder still, is an assertion by Kgosietsile that way before Thutlwe wrote the three companies, the precise marginalised groups he mentions in his letter were bombarding the Physical Planning Committee with applications to be granted special dispensation similar to the one that only Master Carpentry & Joinery, Jun Bud Holdings and Goleba Out Door benefitted from.The result of Thutlwe’s action is that between September 2017 and June 2019, the three companies have been using GCC advertising free of charge. Ordinarily, companies that use the space pay fees that go into the coffers of the perpetually cash-strapped Council.

We have been unable to determine the exact amount that the Council lost because the figures we got from our sources don’t match. While a GCC source puts the sum of lost income at around P3 million, an industry source queries the figure, stating that it would be lower than that.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper

Sunday Standard July 5 – 11

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of July 5 - 11, 2020.