Mon | Dec 5, 2016

Out a one deal, many culprits

Published:Sunday | November 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Chairman of the National Housing Trust (NHT), Easton Douglas, and then managing director of NHT, A. Cecile Watson (centre), greet Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller at a National Housing Trust staff meeting on June 8, 2012. Douglas said last Friday that he would not quit the NHT board over the Outameni controversy.-FILE

Orville Taylor

The pusillanimous explanations justifying the purchase of the Outameni property continue to create a stink. And until the chairman of the National Housing Trust (NHT), construction specialist, surveyor, and entrepreneur, Easton Douglas, opens up and clears the air, the acquisition is going to look like another hairy scheme into which the people's money has been pumped, with little benefit going into the bank for them.

There can be no doubt as to the scope and intent of the Michael Manley government of the 1970s, when the Trust was established. It was supposed to be a showpiece of democracy, good participatory governance, and an implicitly socialist-type agenda. In the Second Schedule, the National Housing Trust Act outlines the composition of its board of directors. "... From persons appearing to the minister to represent workers organisations, employers and the Government, respectively." Like the Industrial Disputes Tribunal, it is tripartite and not simply a creature of the behest of government, although it may not act contrary to government policy.

Except for the direct appointees by Government, such as director of planning and development in the Office of the Prime Minister, Sonia Hyman, they are expected to promote the interest of their 'constituents'. Trade unionists, in particular, must staunchly defend workers' interests, who, without the NHT, would have had little hope of ever owning a home or quarter-acre of land, to build a humble dwelling, despite working for decades like the fabled 'Allibutton'.

Although its board is tripartite, nothing in the act speaks to housing for the private sector or benefits to the Government, for that matter. The Trust was ostensibly designed to provide housing for the working class, and the non-unionist members are there to give added expertise and balance in fulfilling this primary objective.

Last year, the Trust dismissed its managing director, Cecile Watson, under a cloud of allegations over the inappropriate use of the NHT's funds. Intriguingly, board members, the Rev Oliver Daley, a man of impeccable morals; banking guru Minna Israel; economist Dr Davidson Daway; and attorney-at-law Deborah Martin, all resigned in the wake of the termination.

ARROGANCE AND RECKLESSNESS

Other suggestions are that the agreement to purchase the Outameni property, the brainchild of Lennie Little-White around the same time, was the cause. Indeed, Daway, with deep international experience and knowledge in market forces and economic prudence, said he left because of the "arrogance and recklessness" of powerful elements on the board. Moreover, he noted that Watson, "... one of the most efficient leaders at the Trust," did not agree that the buy was a good one for the Trust at that time.

The coterie of Douglas; Hyman; political scientist, Robert Buddan; CEO of the Jamaica Employers' Federation, Brenda Cuthbert; businessmen Percival LaTouche and Norman Horne, the PNP treasurer; and trade unionists Lambert Brown, Vincent Morrison, Kavan Gayle, Helene Davis Whyte and Oneil Grant, were in place when the deal with Little-White was struck and signed. Gayle and Davis Whyte have resigned. By no means a unanimous decision, it was a four-all draw among the members, and the chairman used his casting vote to seal it. In its defence, the board reported that a purchase of $180 million for a property valued at $280 million was an immediate profit. No one felt the need to tell the prime minister, who we know, would not have got it from the press.

I am yet to be convinced that it was a sound business decision. Both businessmen, LaTouche and Horne, have declared that they are staying put and defend their actions. Nonetheless, buying something below its market price doesn't mean that it is a wise purchase. If one acquires a $180-million railroad engine for $80 million, but there are no railroad tracks, no market for it and no buyer to resell it to, then it is truly a 'loco' motive, white elephant and solid waste of money. And, by the way, it is an indefensible position that the purchase was not from the housing budget. All that this means is that the Trust should have put more money into the housing budget and left the 'bailout' for another entity.

Bailouts are not uncommon in Jamaica, and there are myriad persons, short of melanin and memory, who have been rescued by Government via debt forgiveness and forgetfulness. And, despite the Little-White, in his name, Lennie, as a trying black man, in a nation whose motto is 'Out of Many, One People', deserved a 'bly'. However, Government needed to find another mother cow to suck milk from instead of a cup of NHT's.

Nothing tells me that the board has any idea as to what to do with the property. Initially, the intention was to bulldoze the structures, to which Little-White rightly objected. That would be such a stupid move that it could get major political votes.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

After all, the land, as revealed by unionists, Grant and Morrison, on my talk show on Wednesday last, is unsuitable for housing. Moreover, they have not yet determined how the acquisition can be put to good use, or concretely, how it is going to make a profit. If the board cannot clearly show how the purchase is truly an investment and profit generator, it made a huge error and should resign en masse.

For Davis Whyte, the controversy surrounding the purchase was a distraction from her primary function as a unionist, and in the interest of her members, she stepped away to keep focus. Gayle, a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) senator, seems to have walked due to his political allegiance. The sheer hypocrisy in our political leadership is also apparent here. The first entreaty for the Government to purchase the lame-duck attraction was by the previous JLP administration. Interestingly, then Finance Minister Audley Shaw, the biggest Labourite mouth in berating the present administration over this debacle, was as ignorant of an earlier write-off under his watch.

It's all politics, Out of Many; One... people still left out.

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.