Thu | Apr 27, 2017

Outameni, one mess:Questions mount over NHT's purchase of Trelawny attraction

Published:Wednesday | November 5, 2014 | 11:00 AM
Taino 'Naniki' rushes to protect his woman 'Atabeh' during the Taino segment of Outameni Experience in Cooper's Pen, Trelawny. File

Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer

The purchase by the National Housing Trust (NHT) of Outameni Tours and Entertainment Projects, located in Cooper's Pen, near Falmouth, Trelawny, emerged out of a political decision made in late 2012, after prominent tourist interests on both sides of the divide asked the Portia Simpson Miller administration to salvage the nine-acre property, The Gleaner has learned.

The Government reportedly turned to the newly installed NHT board, chaired by former government minister Easton Douglas, for "assistance".

Questions have since been raised as to whether the matter was subject to Cabinet scrutiny, but checks with the Office of the Prime Minister, under which the NHT falls, have so far failed to yield a response.

Attention has now been turned to representatives of five powerful trade unions sitting on the NHT board, who have been silent on the issue since news surfaced that the Trust acquired the property for $180 million. Among the questions that have surfaced in the public domain is whether they have failed workers in need of houses under the guise of an investment.

When the decision was made to purchase Outameni in 2012, the bulk of the major trade unions were represented on the NHT Board.

PAYMENT ISSUE RAISED

The Gleaner was informed that the issue of payment was raised at board meetings in 2012, but payment was not made until March 2013.

During the 2012 board meetings, one member reportedly raised the concern about the $11 billion a year that the Government was extracting from the Trust. Another member reportedly asked whether the NHT would be further exposed, signalling that the transaction resembled a bailout rather than an investment.

It is understood that trade unionists were caught unaware when the issue resurfaced last week.

Government Senator Lambert Brown represents the University and Allied Workers' Union, and Kavan Gayle, an opposition senator, the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union. Helene Davies White represents the Jamaica Association of Local Government Officers, while O'Neil Grant sits for the Jamaica Civil Service Association, which represents the vast majority of public-sector workers. Former president of the governing People's National Party-aligned National Workers' Union, Vincent Morrison, who now heads the breakaway Union of Clerical, Administrative and Supervisory Employees, also sits on the NHT board.

With union representatives maintaining a silent posture under the mantle of collective responsibility, Danny Roberts, the head of the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute, the Consortium for Social Development and Research, Open Campus at the University of the West Indies, has come to the defence of his colleagues.

"That's a difficult matter to assess without all the information," said Roberts. "If Outameni represents an investment possibility for medium-to-long-term earnings, then it certainly would be an equation which would have to be weighed if, in the long term, more houses can be built for the working population."

Roberts argued that there is always a choice between dealing with an immediate need with limited implications for the future, as against postponing for the prospect of a better, sustainable future.

"Knowing the trade union leaders on the board as I do, I believe they would have made the best decision in the medium-to-long-term interest of the workers," said Roberts.

Speaking with The Gleaner yesterday, Howard Mitchell, the former chairman of the NHT board, maintained his position that the NHT was shortchanging Jamaicans by veering off course.

Mitchell said that under his watch, the Trust would have had the capacity to provide houses for 100 per cent of contributing workers if funds were not being diverted. He suggested that the Government should have sourced funding to save Outameni from the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF).

"If you want to help someone, help through the TEF," he said.

Banks, Mitchell argued, should have been made to find the $11 billion per year over four years that is being taken out by the Government. He said with the high level of squatting and urban decay, the NHT should have been focusing on its core function.

The NHT board, which made the decision to purchase the property, came into effect in February 2012 and the decision to make the payment was made later that year while Cecile Watson was managing director.

By then, the proposal was said to be far advanced, but Mitchell said that matter never came up under his watch.

"I left the NHT in June 2012, but the matter was never … I didn't know of the matter prior to now."

He added: "It's not tribalism or politics, but the sad truth is that we failed in my tenure … . We could have provided for all of our clients, but we only managed 50 per cent. That, to me, was not success, and it was for this reason that I called for a review of the operations of the NHT."

gary.spaulding@gleanerjm.com