Moonilal probes land rental scheme
By Sasha Harrinanan Friday, July 20 2012
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Under blue skies: The International Waterfront Centre and Hyatt Regency, at left, tower overhead at Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain yesterday...
An investigation has been launched into governance issues within the Estate Management and Business Development Company (EMBDC) over the low-cost rental of State lands to businesses on a month-to-month basis.
Housing Minister, Dr Roodal Moonilal, gave the mandate late yesterday afternoon following a three-hour meeting at his office on South Quay, Port-of-Spain with the Board and executive management of EMBDC.
“A small team from my ministry will enquire into the concerns raised by Board members about governance systems currently in place between the Board and management but it is certainly not an audit. The team has been given 21 days to look at those systems and determine needs to be done to strengthen the organisation,” Moonilal told Newsday yesterday.
EMBDC managers had apparently been renting thousands of acres of non-agricultural land to businesses, sometimes for as little as $125 per acre, reportedly without the knowledge of the Board or line minister.
Based on information provided by EMBDC members to Moonilal during yesterday’s discussions, which began at about 3 pm and ended shortly before 6 pm, the minister said the practise of cheap month-to-month land rentals “obtained way before May 2010,” when the People’s Partnership came into power.
“It was a practise that developed under the PNM administration but it was not available to farmers because it was done on a month-to-month basis using lands not suitable for agriculture. We will be revising that policy, any PNM policies that remained, to make sure the EMBDC can interface with business and commercial entities in an equitable and transparent manner,” Moonilal stated.
As of yesterday afternoon, three Board members had submitted their resignations to Finance Minister Larry Howai, over the rental controversy and their difficult working relationship with EMBDC chairman Krishendath Joe Ramkissoon.
The three are president of the Agricultural Society of TT, Dhano Sookoo, professor at the University of the West Indies Dr Ian Khan Kernahan and Director of Land and Water in the Food Production Ministry, Robert Salandy.
Questioned about their resignations and the publicly declared intention of others to do the same, including deputy chairman Stephen Broadbridge, Moonilal said he was only aware of three resignations.
“I have not received any resignations but we took the opportunity during the meeting to thank them for their service to the company and to the country.”
Broadbridge told Newsday he no longer felt uncomfortable about the situation because “the minister is handling the issues raised. I’m very confident that he will handle it effectively (so) I am comfortable now remaining on the Board.”
Sookoo had mixed views on the 21-day investigation, telling Newsday, “while I am pleased at the news and it provides me with a sense of hope for the future of the EMBDC, the minister cannot put right systems in place without removing the people responsible for these actions.”
The ASTT president said her time serving on the Board was very frustrating and disheartening because “the chairman never gave us (herself, Kernahan and Salandy) an opportunity to speak, to voice our opinions or concerns. We were ‘shot down’ so often, I asked myself, ‘What is your purpose on this Board?’ But it was when we found out about the cheap rental of State lands that I decided enough was enough. I handed in my official letter of resignation on Wednesday,” Sookoo declared.
Ramkissoon declined to comment on the issues at hand, telling Newsday “we had a good meeting, a very good meeting.”