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Political manipulation corrupting NHT's role

Published:Tuesday | November 18, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Political manipulation corrupting NHT's role


The first simple criticism to be made of the Outameni purchase is that it represents a loss of focus by the National Housing Trust (NHT) directorate on the core business of the Trust. This is housing for all Jamaicans, designed to be affordable to all. This, I believe, is what most people in civil society want and are saying.

The NHT should be using - to build houses for low-income people - the nearly $300 million it will spend on Outameni. It already has for this in Trelawny more than 700 acres and lands elsewhere. While the 2013-14 annual report is not yet public, the Trust is reportedly behind its budget in carrying out such projects.

My further criticism is of the partisan politics and poor management that are behind this failure of focus. The current swirl of partisanship around Outameni threatens to obscure this crucial aspect.

Earl Samuels firing

In 2010, after 12 years as NHT managing director, Earl Samuels rebuffed political pressure from the highest level for hiring and rehiring staff. He refused to change his approach, and not voluntarily resigning, was fired and had to be compensated. Under Samuels, board chairmen were denied offices at the NHT on the grounds that they were not executive chairmen and their presence would lead to interference with his role. Their only remuneration was the usual retainer for attendance at board meetings. These were his principled and important management measures.

Today, board chairman Easton Douglas has an office at the NHT and an NHT-purchased and -maintained, chauffeur-driven vehicle. Since Ms Cecile Watson's removal as managing director over a year ago, the post has had only an acting managing director, Martin Miller (senior general manager, finance). And although it was recently ruled that statutory bodies are not to have executive chairmen, clearly this is how Douglas is behaving.

Cecile Watson's termination

In 2013, Cecile Watson's contract was terminated on the allegation of unsanctioned refurbishing of an NHT office. Others believe it was her opposition to the Douglas-led Outameni purchase. Four board members resigned within a week, probably in protest - banker Minna Israel, the Rev Oliver Daley, economist Dr Davidson Daway and attorney Deborah Martin. Out-of-court settlement of this dispute, apart from the quantum, suggests acceptance of the absence of any impropriety on Watson's part.

From these and other indications - Outameni is only the latest and most flagrant - the slide towards increased political manipulation and mismanagement of this major public body is worrying. It must be stopped. Trade-union representation on the NHT board has been disappointing. The NHT board chairman and board, which last year lost four strong members, must be replaced and its management regularised.