This is an unexpurgated transcript of the interview conducted with Roatan Mayor Dorn Ebanks March 27, 2014, in his office in Coxen Hole. An edited version appeared in the May 2014 issue of the Bay Islands Voice. George Crimmin, a senior adviser to Ebanks (and long-time Voice columnist), sat in on part of the discussion.
Ebanks was elected Mayor in November 2013 and began serving his four-year term January 25, 2014. Ebanks was born in Coxen Hole and spent a lot of time in West End growing up. He ran unsuccessfully for Mayor twice, the first time when he was only 23, and was Governor of the Bay Islands 1998-2002. A pilot and broadcaster, he started the first TV channel on Roatan in 1993 (Canal 4) and later founded an airline, Easy Sky, which is currently not flying.
BIV: How has it been (first two months on job) compared to what your expectations were?
Ebanks: I’ve found it a little boring, lacking challenges. I thought it was really difficult and found it to be so easy and so simple. So I have to really take it from the simple level to the more complex level when it comes to development and strategic planning for Roatan for the next 30 years. There’s no planning in place. … We’re working on affordable homes, a new water/sewage planning system, an electrical company with three components: a coop, the City as a strategic partner and an investment partner.
With a three-part component, definitely we can secure and hedge a good energy company.
BIV: So this would replace RECO?
Ebanks: No. This would be a competition. RECO would continue.
I’m really disappointed with RECO given the fact that the person that owns RECO is a US citizen. In the United States you’ve got all this demand for, you know, standards and quality control when it comes to energy. And we don’t see it here. You know, he shows up here and he does it on a Third-World-country level. We don’t have dedicated energy, it’s not reliable, it’s not affordable and it’s not green. This wouldn’t have really survived in the United States.
BIV: Doesn’t RECO own the power lines, though?
Ebanks: Oh, they do. They own everything.
BIV: So this company would have to lease lines from RECO?
Ebanks: That’s one of the options. However, the other option is do it underground. Put in underground lines. That will require a lot of money. But in the long run, it’s like a high-intensive capital venture: you invest a lot of money to get it going, and then once it’s up and going, guess what? Then it begins to just coast right down the hill.
BIV: What would be the source of generation?
Ebanks: The source would be biomass. We call it a pre-engineering fuel. It would be garbage or whatever kind of mass that is available. Say like palm trees mass in La Ceiba or in Colon. We’ll be acquiring that and we’ll be buying farms on the Continent in order to have a dedicated and sustainable source. And this would be compressed or compacted into pellets.
We’re going to call it a Green Energy Park – the Roatan Green Energy Park.
We’ll be doing joint ventures with the palma africana producers. We already had talks with them.
I cannot disclose this to you at this time, but this (holds out copy of document) is a letter of intent that was signed yesterday with Limtech Technologies (Nahuanta, GA) … It’s non-binding.
We need to be in control of our energy destiny.
BIV: So they (Limtech) would be providing the technology?
Ebanks: Absolutely. Yes. And we’ll be on board as strategic partners.
BIV: Where’s the capital going to come from?
Ebanks: We’ve been talking to two different banks – one in Guatemala and one here in Honduras.
BIV: So this would be a loan to the Municipality?
Ebanks: The Municipality and the coop. We’d make a joint venture.
Every single citizen would be a partner, a stakeholder in the coop.
BIV: Not foreign residents?
Ebanks: Foreign residents are invited. You’re invited to get on board.
BIV: Are you going to be able to get this done in four years?
Ebanks: My target is three and a half years, six months prior to reelection.
BIV: So is there a possibility that your successor, if you don’t get reelected, could just drop it?
Ebanks: No. I’ll set up a program where it will be viable or feasible for anybody that shows up or is elected to this office will be able to follow up. It will be intelligently structured. It will be a smart project.
I’m a little disappointed in this office. I thought it would have been more challenging. I thought it would have been more complex …It’s like day-to-day business. So we’re trying to take it to a micro level.
One of our projects is to set up a micro city here in Roatan, an intelligent or smart city.
BIV: So what else have you been focussing on your first two months?
Ebanks: We’ve been focussing on cleaning up the city. We’ve been doing a facelift for Coxen Hole.
In terms of security, we’ve been really setting up some robust programs. That is establishing cameras in key or critical areas here in Roatan.
BIV: Are these the ones we got the grant from Taiwan for?
Ebanks: Yes. Ninety percent of those are set up. There’s going to be a central command at the Port of Roatan. Part of the staff is being recruited at this given time. There will be monitoring, surveillance and a call center. This call center will be geared towards first responders: fire department, Red Cross, hospital and police.
BIV: You mentioned cleaning up the city. What are your plans for the dump at Mud Hole?
Ebanks: (Points to letter of intent from Limtech) That’s part of it. He’s (Limtech CEO R. Thomas Currin) going to hedge that area so we can stop the leaching. We’re going to close it down (the dump) eventually. They’ve got the technology, they’ve got the know-how. So I’m going to follow the experts.
BIV: So there will still need to be a new landfill for stuff that’s not combustible, I assume.
Ebanks: Absolutely. The new landfill needs to be well planned. We can’t just go and allocate an area and say, “This is going to be the landfill.” It has to be well engineered and well planned.
BIV: So Julio (Galindo) never actually executed that plan to buy Solomon’s adjoining land?
Ebanks: No. However, Solomon is open, and he wants to negotiate with us.
BIV: Some people around there say there shouldn’t be any landfill there because it’s too close to the beach and it’s a tourist area.
Ebanks: We’re going to create this assortment program, characterization of garbage. Then we can really create an environmentally friendly landfill program. Not like just going there and dumping everything. Not necessarily there.
BIV: Is there still the possibility of using the unused landfill in Santos Guardiola for a fee?
Ebanks: We’ve talked to the Mayor of Santos Guardiola. He’s willing to get on board with that.
By the way, we’re setting up the Mancomunidad de las Islas de la Bahia, which is the Bay Islands Commonwealth, with the mayors of Santos Guardiola, Guanaja and Utila, and one of the discussions was, “Hey, we need to get together and make a joint venture between Santos Guardiola and Roatan when it comes to waste management.”
BIV: Isn’t that what Zolitur was supposed to have been, like a Commonwealth of the Bay Islands? All four mayors are a part of that board.
Ebanks: That has not worked the way we want it to work. I’m more pro-autonomy. … We want to set up our own commonwealth, not having Zolitur creating its laws … a program that people perceive as friendly towards the community.
BIV: So would this commonwealth be chartered or recognized by the Central Government?
BIV: Would you need new legislation to do that?
Ebanks: No. It’s within the Municipality Law. Municipalities can get together and bond for common interests, and we’re going to do that. … We’ll work out a plebiscite, which will be like a referendum, and once that referendum has taken place, the outcome, then that’s where the people will decide where it goes. I’m looking at another seven to eight months. Within this year we can have everything going. There’s a gentleman from Spain and another man from Guatemala (Tulio Monterroso), they’re working on this commonwealth program.
They’ve got 17 autonomous communities in Spain, and they’ve been quite successful in terms of getting things done jointly and creating common wealth.
BIV: Would that, like Zolitur, allow you to have your own environmental laws, your own police force, set up your own courts?
Ebanks: Absolutely. A local assembly also.
Crimmin: And control who’s coming and going.
Ebanks: There are governments out there that are willing to provide us grants and financing. Yesterday the island of San Pedro in Belize, they stated interest in becoming a sister island. … We’re going to get on board with that. … Next week (first week of April) we’ll be appointing Henry Jensen as goodwill ambassador from Roatan to Denmark.
We’ve got common grounds with the island of San Pedro. We can exchange a lot of interests there.
BIV: Would you foresee the revenues that are currently dedicated to Zolitur being shifted to this commonwealth?
Ebanks: We’re not pursuing any kind of opposition to Zolitur. However, we’re really interested in the Bay Islands Commonwealth, the four municipalities getting together so they can grow together, regardless of Zolitur’s intervention or their opposition or their clout, which I believe they have no clout at this time. They’ve got a problem of perception.
BIV: But the four of you are part of the board of Zolitur.
Ebanks: We’re board members, yeah. But that doesn’t hinder or impede us from becoming a commonwealth.
BIV: So what other goals do you have for your four years? What’s your grand vision?
Ebanks: One of our grand vision is setting up a charter city here on Roatan, like a micro city. … It will be more of a business community – an enclave where everybody would become partners. We’ll get financing from a bank and we’ll have buildings … and we’ll attract businesses from abroad to come to Roatan to occupy those infrastructures or facilities, and we get revenues from their profits, and with that money then we’ll be paying off our loans or financing. We’ll have supermarkets in there … shopping centers, clinics, condominium projects … banking facilities. … I call it more of a “replica of a city.”
BIV: And what’s the advantage of locating there? Are they going to be exempt from certain taxes or regulations?
Ebanks: That’s one of the pursuits. … The Ciudades Modelos (Honduran legislative initiative) now they’ve got unfettered access to tax shelter, eventually. … That’s why the Taiwanese and South Koreans are going to be starting charter cities soon.
The hospital project is underway. … That’s one of the reasons why we’re getting on board with the Danish Government. … We’re trying to get funds not only for the healthcare system, not only for the hospital, but also for the education system. Because Denmark has been really contributing a lot of funds and grants to South Africa recently. And we’re trying to create some attraction on this end of the world.
BIV: There’s a private hospital that’s supposed to be breaking ground, I was told this month (March), but there’s only four days left in this month.
Ebanks: You don’t see it happening, and I don’t see it happening either. That’s the CEMESA one. That’s for profit. … It seems like it’s tied in with regenerative medicine … stem cells.
BIV: The public hospital, I was told you’d set up a board to go out and look for funds. I understand the last administration got the land and the Health Ministry didn’t provide the funds.
Ebanks: That was not the last administration, the administration before that. That was Dale’s (Dale Jackson) administration. They managed to secure the property. So the property is there. The environmental license is still in place. The money was allocated. It was granted by the South Korean Government. It was $23 million. … Given that the authorities of the past administration was not quite proactive in securing those funds … it was diverted to Choluteca.
BIV: I thought it went to Atlantida?
Ebanks: Atlantida was a different grant.
What we’re doing now at this given time, hopefully in the month of May or June we’ll be meeting with a group from the US, and there’s another group from Europe, which will be the Danish people, that are interested in getting on board with the new hospital, and we’re aspiring for 130-150 beds, with at least six specialists. I’m looking hopefully next year in the month of June we should be seeing something substantial in terms of infrastructure going up and completion maybe in the next three years or something like that.
BIV: So, by the end of your term, people would be able to go to this new hospital and get treated?
Ebanks: Hopefully. That’s optimistic.
CEMESA will have to figure their way out. They’re a private company, and we’re the people’s hospital, the public hospital, which would be funded partly by the Central Government and the Municipality of Roatan.
The other project that’s in place is the Instituto Municipal de Seguridad Social.
We want to detach or break away from the Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social, because it’s collapsed. … I’m taking a very proactive step when it comes to creating Instituto Municipal de Seguridad Social, which would be the Municipal Social Security Institute on Roatan. We must do it.
BIV: What kind of permission do you need from Tegucigalpa to do that?
Ebanks: We can do it on a local basis with a plebicito municipal. … It will be a joint venture. We’ll set up a program … it would be the private business, private enterprise … coop also, and then you got the City. … We create a trust fund. … It would be managed jointly.
BIV: You mentioned education. Is there potential to break away from the Ministry of Education as well?
Ebanks: For now I would not like to really say we’re planning on breaking away from the current Honduran – failed – education program. However, in the near future we’re going to pursue higher education here on the island. That would be more on an autonomous basis.
BIV: But what about improving the primary and secondary education?
Ebanks: We’re working on that. We’re still funding the EIB (Bilingual Intercultural Education) teachers. … We’ve granted them labor rights that they did not have in the past administration. My plan is to attract, let’s say for instance, we’ve got vacation in the US, the summer vacation – June, July and August – we’re planning to attract students, interns, from the US … to come down here and do, let’s say volunteer or social work here in the schools … like creating a vacation teaching program.
Even in Continental Honduras now, if you were to look at the newspaper, you’d see, “Se busca ingeniero que sea bilingüe.” (Bilingual engineer needed.) … It’s not just limited to Roatan anymore (good jobs requiring English). It’s an essential, really.
BIV: What’s the plan on paving that thing I generously call a “road” running from West Bay and through Flowers Bay?
Ebanks: They’re working on it now. … They’re working on West Bay now. They’re working on the pacheo, which is like patching, now. It will be eventually a concrete pavement, a hydraulic concrete pavement. So now we’re working from West Bay to the crossroad the leads to Flowers Bay. … Hopefully by Easter we should have something substantial there.
The Central Government invested Lps 20 million in doing patching (during the last administration). We’ve done patching from … the Gravel Bay/Pensicola Eldon’s (Petrosun), from there until the Flowers Bay crossroad … for under a million lempiras.
BIV: Julio (Galindo, last Mayor) was talking about getting a loan from Banco Atlantida to rebuild that road.
Ebanks: What for? The funding is there. I talked to the SOPTRAVI minister. He told me, “Hey, funding is there for patching and eventual pavement.” So why go into debt?
BIV: So within a year then we’ll have a new road over the hump into West Bay?
BIV: Mayors don’t have a lot of authority over security in this country, but I’m told you’ve appointed a security adviser that’s held some meetings with business people. What’s going on with that? What are your plans here on the island in the security area?
Ebanks: My plan is to set up a commission – the inter-institutional security commission. Business people will be on board. … We will have the fiscales (prosecutors). They will not be part of the commission, but they will be like observers or collaborators … the judge(s). However the main groups will be the patronato (village councils) … the churches, the education board … the Mayor of Santos Guardiola … the Policia Nacional …
There is more of a joint program that is going on now with the Municipal Police and the National Police that did not exist in the past administration. This program will be set up in a way where we will be pursuing a lot of decision-making on a local basis rather than just being dependent on Tegucigalpa. We’re plannning on being more proactive here. I’ll be chairing the commission as Mayor. We’ll have meetings biweekly or monthly, we haven’t made a decision on that yet. … Billy Joya is the adviser. He’s from Tegucigalpa. He has a strong background in security programs.
BIV: Other than putting up security cameras, what are some of the things under the Municipality’s control that can be done to improve security on the island?
Ebanks: We’ll be creating a fingerprint database … a biometric system that will be located at the international airport here and also at the ferry, so we can monitor who’s entering and who’s exiting the island.
BIV: What if they just slip out on a cargo boat?
Ebanks: The cargo boat area, trust me, we’re setting up cameras at every venue where cargo boats dock or remain for more than 24 hours.
There are some motorcycles now that the National Police is using, and we’ve been helping them acquire those motorcycles. Patrols are more consistent now and more dedicated.
So that is improving the … perception that, “Hey, we’re here, we’re watching you, we’re not going to allow you to do as you please.”
We’ll be dismissing or firing around 12 (out of 20) municipal police. … We have raised the bar for recruiting new police officers, at least a high school diploma, preferably university. And pays will be better.
What we discovered here was that 90 percent of the municipal police officers, they hadn’t even like passed, some sixth grade. The best would be like eighth grade or ninth grade. We can’t have that type of staffing of human resources.
BIV: Is Joe Solomon still going to be the chief?
Ebanks: That is to be disclosed eventually.
BIV: So you’re going to revamp the Muni Police, but they’re still going to have the same level of authority?
Ebanks: We can increase their authority. But it must be done jointly with the National Police: joint patrols, joint traffic policing, things of that effect. Definitely we’re going to be pursuing all information necessary to strengthen the Municipal Police and have them work closely with the National Police. With that we can create more accountability on the part of the National Police. At this given time, we don’t see the accountability from the National Police. However, Sub-Comisionado Flores (second in command of Bay Islands National Police detachment) has been quite collaborative and also cooperative with the Municipality.
BIV: On the subject of policing, the 5 p.m. closing law, that seems to differ from weekend to weekend how it’s applied. What do you think the impact has been on businesses here and what is being done to bring some consistency to it?
Ebanks: I prefer not to deal with that. I’ll leave that up to the Central Government.
BIV: Are you aware of any other mayors that are lobbying for exemptions?
Ebanks: Not on the Bay Islands. … I haven’t heard that many complaints or oppositions. I haven’t had a single business person come to my office requesting that we intervene.
BIV: Absent a national law, municipalities can set their own closing hours. So the Muni could extend closing hours one night of the week to compensate people that are losing that Sunday night business. Is that under discussion?
Ebanks: No. That’s not even under consideration.
BIV: You’ve mentioned a lot of ambitious plans here that are going to require financing. What’s that going to do to the Muni’s debt and financing burden?
Ebanks: This is a debt-free muni.
BIV: But you’re going to build a new dump, build a new hospital, security systems … is this all going to be foreign grants?
Ebanks: The security system will be self-sustaining. We’re setting up a trust fund with the companies. The Municipality would be providing part of the financing, and the committee would be complementing that, matching funds.
We’ll be working out some financing scheme with some of the banking institutions here in Honduras. … Most of these programs will be programs that will be not only taking funds away from the Municipal but will be creating or generating revenues for the Municipal. So we’re not going to create a welfare society. We’re going to empower people, but then they will have to contribute to that empowerment.
BIV: So to sum up, your first two months have been less challenging than you had anticipated, but it sounds like you’re going to make it more challenging for yourself.
Ebanks: Absolutely. We can sit here and just go through a simple part. But if we were to just sit here for four years and do what the other guys have done, it would be a breeze … Just you know fix a road and say “hello” to people, give away money. Then after three and a half years you decide you want to be reelected and give away ayudas sociales. And you begin to foster that welfare mentality, entitlement mentality. We don’t want that. We don’t want people to be always with their hands out begging. We want when they stretch their hands out it be to shake hands, on an equal basis, eye to eye. I’m empowered and you’re empowered.