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DUMPING THE PAST

NSWMA keen on rewriting history of corruption; funding, COVID challenges harden process

Published:Sunday | April 18, 2021 | 12:18 AMCorey Robinson - Senior Staff Reporter
NSWMA Executive Director Audley Gordon.
NSWMA Executive Director Audley Gordon.

NSWMA Chairman Dennis Chung.
NSWMA Chairman Dennis Chung.
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A decade after a mysterious fire razed the record-keeping section of the National Solid Waste Management Authority’s (NSWMA) headquarters, awaking long-standing allegations of political interference, corruption, and mismanagement, it seems administrators are making good on a promise to clean up and restructure the agency.

And if recently winning two awards at this year’s Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica’s Public Bodies Corporate Governance Awards ceremony is any measure of the company’s ‘ATTIRE’ for success, things are moving fast.

NSWMA won first place for Corporate Governance Policies, Procedures and Practices; and second place for the President Award for the Most Improved Public Body.

“Accountability, Transparency, Teamwork, Integrity, Respect, and Excellence,” stressed NSWMA Executive Director Audley Gordon, defining the acronym as he and Chairman Dennis Chung vowed a rebranding of the entity – one clean of scandals – two years ago. Now the mantra is bearing fruit, Gordon said proudly last Wednesday.

“This acronym guides how we approach work on a daily basis. It was not just to deal with accountability, which is one aspect, but it speaks to the wider teamwork and how as a team we get the job done,” he told The Sunday Gleaner.

“The awards, in my view, are an endorsement of an approach that is grounded in the ATTIRE team. It speaks to quality leadership from the board right down through the internal leadership of the organisation. It means that we are doing things differently – better policies, better practices,” continued the executive director, reflecting on the NSWMA’s controversial past in former years.

“For example, in the ancient culture, for a good decade we didn’t file our audits, we didn’t do our external audited financials. That alone tells you what obtained at the NSWMA in former years,” he said. “Now, those days are long behind us. We file our audit reports on time each year. In fact, right now we are on target and that is how we are operating now, with a new approach.”

Among the blotches that have tainted the history of the NSWMA is the midnight fire in December 2011 at the height of a general election campaign. Reports are that a guard was found bound near the burning building, which suffered damage to two floors, particularly the record-keeping section. It is believed the fire was started by arsonists, but no one was arrested and internal probes showed that between $600 million and $700 million could not be reconciled at the entity.

With claims that the NSWMA has also been used as a political feeding tree by the two political parties that have formed governments, it is believed that cronies have been sent to the agency for compensation for political services over the years, and it is suggested that politically connected private contractors have been given garbage contracts without bidding.

Last Wednesday, Chung lauded the agency’s management team for their awards, but warned things could return to the former years if serious decisions are not made and upheld. Primary among these is the long-overdue divestment of the island’s garbage disposal sites, which, in 2019, it was estimated would save Jamaica roughly $7 billion annually.

EFFECTIVE MANAGEMENT FRAMEWORK

“It is not difficult for a minister to come in, appoint someone that is of the ilk of the past and changes the whole thing again; unless the corporate governance framework that the Government is putting into place is effective, which means you can’t get rid of all your board at one time ... . That is what we really want,” he said, listing sexual harassment and whistle-blower policies and an enterprise risk management framework among some of the initiatives which have bolstered staff morale.

“It (winning the awards) means that we have implemented a very sound framework to get the best policies and procedure. The only thing I think is keeping us from winning the bigger awards is that we don’t have any money. If you look at all the other companies that won awards: the NHF, the NHE, Factories Corporation – all of those places earn money and have money to do the things that we would like to do,” Chung argued.

“When people talk about the NSWMA nowadays, they don’t talk about corruption, they don’t talk about major fires. What they talk about is ‘boy, you use to take my garbage every week, but I don’t see you now for the past two or three weeks’. We accept that we have these things, and the reason is we don’t have the money. We don’t earn money. Property taxes is what we get money from, and in this COVID environment that has been down and we are suffering,” Chung said.

Nonetheless, he said employees are now happy to be working at the company. The Sunday Gleaner understands that garbage collectors earn a salary of $2,500 per day with additional benefits. This was last increased in July last year. When Gordon took over the operation at the company six years ago, garbage collectors were earning $1,300 daily.

The NSWMA beat out the National Export-Import Bank of Jamaica and the National Health Fund for first place for the policies and procedures prize, but was beaten by National Housing Trust for the PSOJ’s award for the most improved public body. Third place went to the National Health Fund.

Last year, the company also won awards for significant improvement and adherence to company policies.

corey.robinson@gleanerjm.com