Private sector shocked by Outameni developments
Prominent church leaders huddled until late yesterday as the parlia-mentary Opposition embraced the rejection by potent private-sector groupings of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's decision to retain members of the board of the National Housing Trust (NHT) amid the ongoing Outameni Experience controversy.
Business leaders declared they were dumbfounded by claims that, over the years, prime ministers with responsibility for the NHT, have not been informed of the decisions made by the board.
There were indications that the stance adopted by the private-sector groups has effectively thrust the beleaguered Simpson Miller administration further on the defensive.
The Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC), Jamaica Manu-facturers' Association (JMA) and Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) have expressed displeasure with Simpson Miller's refusal to boot NHT board members who refused to resign.
The business leaders also disclosed that they harboured fears that investor confidence in the wider economic reform being undertaken by the Government could be severely affected.
"We are deeply disappointed that the opportunity has been missed to restore public confidence in this critical national institution,
by wiping the slate clean and appointing a new NHT board," stated a joint release from three major bodies that form the core of business leadership in Jamaica.
Gary Harriott, the general secretary of the Jamaica Council of Churches, told The Gleaner that the Church has no intention of meeting with the NHT board, but it has been meeting in a bid to chart a way forward.
He disclosed that other meetings will be convened in the coming days as the churches examine the matter carefully.
But as the private-sector groups and the Church sound off, Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) General Secretary Dr Horace Chang charged that Simpson Miller has signalled that she has no interest in hearing what they have to say.
"Like the business leaders, our position is on the record that the board should have been dismissed and a new one appointed to examine all issues surrounding the Outameni matter," said Chang.
He added: "So we welcome the intervention by the private-sector groups, but the action of the prime minister is disrespectful and shows wanton disregard for the value of the opinions of civil-society groupings."
Chang's comment came in the aftermath of the position taken by the private-sector leaders and Tuesday's clash in Gordon House after Simpson Miller employed parliamentary rules to defer answering additional questions on the Outameni purchase which were posed by the Opposition a week ago.
Even as the expressions of disappointment came from the business leaders that Simpson Miller has failed to capitalise on the recent resignation of three NHT board members in order to give her a free hand to appoint a new board, they complained that the opportunity has been missed to restore public confidence by wiping the slate.
"The groups remain extremely concerned over their view that the NHT has erred in its decision to purchase the Outameni property for J$180 million," the release stated.
The JCC, JMA and PSOJ also cautioned that public concerns on the issue continue to distract the nation from focusing on other critical economic and social issues.
The business leaders said they found unbelievable the claims by NHT Chairman Easton Douglas that in "38 years of the operations of the National Housing Trust, on no occasion has the Trust ever advised the minister about the sale or purchase, or any transaction".
"In the event that this statement is true, then we have to question the fundamental nature of governance of the NHT from its inception," they stated. "On the other hand, if this statement is found to be untrue, then it is the view of the JCC, JMA, and PSOJ, that this would make untenable the position of Mr Douglas as chairman of the NHT."
The private-sector groups also divulged that they welcomed word that, as they had requested, both the auditor general and the Office of the Contractor General have started a probe into the NHT.
"We anxiously await the outcome of these investigations," they stated.
The umbrella groupings also called for immediate and urgent review of the governance structure at the NHT by an appropriate and independent body, and for the recommendations of this review to be implemented as soon as possible.
"Until then, the groups call for the NHT to put on hold any and all further expenditures by the Trust on projects not directly related to its primary mandate of providing affordable housing for its contributors," the business leaders said.