Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Mending fences - Holness and Simpson Miller meet, regular ones planned for 2017

Published:Wednesday | December 14, 2016 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson
Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller are seen in this January file photo.

Seeking to stem further political fallout over the controversial $600-million bush-clearing programme, Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller held closed-door talks on repairing the relationship between the Government and the Opposition.

A statement from the Office of the Prime Minister said Holness reiterated what he said after the Opposition last week walked out of the House of Representatives: that the project had been altered to give elected representatives a say.

"In response, the Opposition said the changes are appreciated across the board. The prime minister also noted that the Opposition is a key partner in the country's governance structure," read the statement, which noted that the meeting took place at Holness' invitation.

People's National Party (PNP) General Secretary Julian Robinson said the Opposition requested the meeting, seeking clarity about the work programme.

"We got clarity on that, and we agreed to meet on a regular basis, going forward, on other issues that affect the country."

The PNP had pledged "active protests" against the Government over the bush-clearing project, which it said sidelined its representatives and was used by the Holness administration to boost support in November's local government elections.

 

CONTROVERSIAL $600M PROGRAMME

 

The meeting took place the same day technocrats from the National Works Agency (NWA), which is implementing the project, were grilled by opposition members of a parliamentary committee.

Repeatedly, NWA Chief Executive Officer E.G. Hunter had to tell the Infrastructure and Physical Development Committee that he could not divulge discussions with Government representatives as he faced a barrage of questions on the motive behind the allocation of the work and the contractors selected.

"As to the motivation and the antecedents leading to that decision, that's conjecture, and that's a realm in which I will make no excursion. Suffice it to say that I have legitimate authority to enter into five contracts with five contractors of appropriate grade to do work which I considered to be necessary as directed by the Cabinet."

Dr Fenton Ferguson pressed on how the list of areas for de-bushing, which were determined on parish basis, was derived, but Hunter would not entertain him, saying: "If there are any legitimate issues with construct of that list, I'm sure you know how to deal with that."

The five contractors involved in the islandwide mitigation programme are Build-Rite Construction, General Paving, Asphaltic Concrete Enterprise, Y.P. Seaton & Associates, and Construction Solution. They entered into contracts with the Government on November 18, ten days before the local government elections. The programme is to end January 17, 2017.

The contracts were not subjected to the tendering process because the Government used the emergency selection rite, citing weeks of heavy rains and the need to reduce mosquito-breeding sites.

"You're saying to us," Chairman Mikael Phillips said to the NWA head, "the Cabinet of Jamaica basically chose these contractors, they broke down, per parish, the scope of work to be done, and then instructed the NWA to do what was decided in Cabinet."

"I said no such thing!" Hunter hit back. "That goes to the antecedents, and as I said before, I'm not at liberty to divulge whatever counsel I might have given to any of my superiors."

The contractors have been paid $237 million for most of the work already done, and despite them getting early payments, Hunter insisted that proper verifications were done to ensure the work was up to standard.

Only Dave Brown and Everald Warmington, as government committee members, turned up. Warmington is the state minister in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, under which the NWA and the bush-clearing programme fall. He left early, and Brown said little.

The Office of the Contractor General is probing the issue.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com