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NHT board adds four

Published:Tuesday | November 25, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Easton Douglas (second right), chairman of the National Housing Trust, addresses the media during a press briefing at the Trust's St Andrew offices yesterday as board members O'Neil Grant (left), Percival LaTouche (right) and Norman Horne look on. - Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer

PM ignores calls to fire older members

Edmond Campbell, Senior Staff Reporter

Resisting pressure to fire the remaining members of the board of the National Housing Trust (NHT) amid the ongoing Outameni controversy, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller last night announced the appointment of four new members to strengthen the body.

The new appointees - Deputy Chair Daisy Coke, a retired actuary; Sergeant Raymond Wilson, Chairman of the Police Federation; Clayton Hall, past president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association; and Pastor Michael Harvey, vice-president of the Northern Caribbean University - bring the number of board members to 12, three more than the nine required for decisions to be made.

The appointments, made with immediate effect, come against the background of recent resignations within the NHT board which had come under fire for spending $180 million to purchase the property on which the Outameni Experience attraction sits. The Opposition and other groups have criticised the board for getting involved in a venture it viewed as outside the NHT's mandate.

Additional Appointments

The prime minister's office indicated that additional appointments would be made in due course and that the new appointees, along with the existing directors, would continue to serve until the life of the current board expires on April 2 next year.

Last night, Hall said he accepted the appointment because he was always prepared to serve Jamaica and Jamaicans.

"The teachers' association has from time to time been given a post on the board, and at this time I've been asked and I will ensure that I seek to advance the interest of teachers in terms of housing and housing development," Hall said.

Horace Levy, a member of the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition, said: "Is the prime minister just going to ignore civil society like this? There is one particular area which is up for discussion and which we will be looking at, and that is what level of cooperation civil society should give to the Government in other areas."

Earlier yesterday, a strident NHT board chairman Easton Douglas declared that the acquisition of the Orange Grove lands in Trelawny, which house the Outameni Experience, were a "tangible living investment" that translates into the people of Jamaica owning a 300-year-old great house, among other assets.

Douglas told journalists during a press conference at the Trust's St Andrew office that the NHT could have opted to use lands it owns close to the Outameni facility, but noted that the replacement cost of the buildings would amount to about half a billion dollars or more.

However, Douglas argued that the great house on the property could not be replaced.

"Do you know that the people of this country, not only the contributors, now own a national treasure?" Douglas asked.

He added: "We bought the property because it had facilities that would contribute to the quality of life in and around Trelawny."

Punishment That Is Not Deserved

In responding to calls for him to step down over his role in the purchase of the Orange Grove property, Douglas said: "I cannot admit to guilt when there is nothing to be guilty of in terms of my reputation or in terms of imposing on myself punishment that is not deserved."

To date, three members of the board have stepped aside since the controversy erupted. They are Kavan Gayle, Helene Davis Whyte and Brenda Cuthbert. Four other board members had resigned last year.

Quizzed as to whether the board would go ahead with plans to purchase the intellectual property for Outameni Experience, Douglas suggested that the decision has been put on hold for now.

"We respect the expressions from the public, and we don't want to appear to be arrogant and not listen to what the public has to say."

Douglas also denied claims that the board acted improperly, noting that its actions were lawful, moral and in the best interest of the NHT contributors and the people of Jamaica.

The NHT board chairman admitted that he "may not have explained the distinction between the Outameni business and the Orange Grove property in an article published in The Gleaner's Wednesday Business, which first revealed the purchase last month.

"Unfortunately, this may have contributed to some misunderstanding," he said.

The sale agreement, according to Douglas, reflected a price of $180 million for property consisting of 9.12 acres of land and 19 buildings amounting to 22,371 square feet.

He said the value of the land itself is $12.74 million, which meant that an acre amounted to $1.39 million "and not $18 million per acre as is being bandied about by some people".

On the question of why the NHT acquired the property and had plans to purchase the intellectual component of Outameni, Douglas said the Trust was optimistic about using the property to make money.

"The NHT did not contemplate losing money from this investment. We thought we could turn around what was a difficulty previously."

He said over the next four to five years, there would be an increase of about 5,000 persons living in Trelawny.

He said the fact that the entity experienced losses under Lennie Little-White's management was not an indication that the Trust could not turn around the fortunes of the operation.

"The fact that it was not making a profit at the time was not ignored, but we were confident from the point of view of sustainability, joined-up government and application of certain aspects of management to that we could make a profit."

Meanwhile, the upkeep of the property is costing the Government $1.2 million monthly.