straight to the point – from different points of view

Total THA disrespect for judiciary

Total THA disrespect for judiciary

By now you know the extent to which THA has openly ignored the orders of the courts in two consecutive matters. They were first ordered to cease construction of their Vendors Mall in Charlotteville and to refrain from demolition of the booth of one of the plaintiffs, Mr. Hercules. They demolished his booth contrary to said court order and continue construction to this day. Their contempt for the law and the courts are now beyond question. They wear it like a badge of honour.

Yet despite their manifest disregard for the law, there are other aspects of their behaviour that merit attention. I will shine a light on the failure of other agencies to regulate and sanction them in future articles. Those include Town and Country Planning Division, Environment Management Agency (EMA) and Trinidad and Tobago Police Service. Each of these could and should have acted as a bulwark against the unlawful activities of the THA. Their role will be detailed in the coming weeks.

What I wish to share with you today is their disregard for the strictures of the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA). FoIA grants persons access to information held by our Public Bodies (of which THA is one) under clearly prescribed rules. One such rule is that upon receiving such a request, the public body must respond to the requester within 30 of receipt stating whether the information is to be provided or reasons for refusal if that be the case.

In relation to this unlawful construction and some other topical matters I have submitted a number requests for information to THA. Consistent with their disregard for the laws of the land in every aspect of their behaviour in this sorry saga, they have not even deigned to acknowledge my requests, much less to give an answer one way or the other.

It is widely acknowledged that FoIA is one of the most important and potent tools available to concerned citizens in their quest for openness, transparency and accountability from those who occupy positions of power in the public sector and who deal in the expenditure of public funds.

Defiance of the mandates of FoIA are a red flag to anyone concerned with accountability. In this case where THA is also blatantly ignoring the orders of the court, we have to be concerned about what the THA has to hide. Given that they have not even produced audited statements for well over a decade, the need to obtain answers to our questions takes on even greater significance. It is the only means by which answers can be sought to troubling questions. Here are the questions that they refuse to answer or even acknowledge:

Request

Submitted

  1. Legal costs re unlawful demolition and adverse possession

11/12/19

  1. Mall legal costs

11/12/19

  1. Mall Projections

11/12/19

  1. Manta Lodge costs

11/12/19

  1. Sanctuary costs

11/12/19

  1. Whether sought independent legal advice before resumption of work

11/12/19

These information requests are all reasonable and should pose no problems for an accountable THA with any modicum of respect for its citizens. Here is my rationale for asking these specific questions, though my rationale has no bearing on the need to respond within 30 days as per FoIA.

  • Legal costs (1, 2 and 6) – how much of our money is being spent to defend the indefensible (a practice about which the PM has expressed grave concern)

  • Mall projections – will this mall ever earn a net return for taxpayers, or is it being constructed in the certain knowledge that it will drain money annually from the public purse for decades to come, as is the case with all other malls they have constructed?

  • Whether they sought legal advice before resumption of work (6) – did THA exercise due care before expending public funds on an activity prohibited by the court ruling

  • Manta Lodge costs (4) – Capital and further costs attributable to the acquisition of Manta Lodge Hotel especially since the property appears to have deteriorated during the five years or so since acquisition

  • Sanctuary Villas costs (5) – Capital and further costs attributable to the acquisition of Sanctuary Villas especially since the property appears to have deteriorated during the five years or so since acquisition

The folks at the THA are maintaining a not so proud tradition. Across the public service, there is a depressing consistency in the knee jerk reaction to all requests for information under FoIA. Officers routinely refuse information requests for the most frivolous reasons. These officers know that the only real recourse then is expensive legal action by the requester. Public sector officers have access to infinitely deep pockets and can afford to deny information knowing that few persons will challenge them in court, especially when the matter at hand is one of public interest and of no financial benefit to the requester. Public officers know that very few people would risk their own money in this way. As written, FoIA places an almost unbridgeable barrier in front of a requester.

Unfortunately for THA we are committed to breaching that barrier. We will challenge them for the information we seek. We will challenge them about their waste of public funds. We will challenge them for their defiance of court judgments. We will do so through the courts and by any legal means at our disposal.

This matter is not unique. That is one reason why we must take it to its conclusion. We have arrived at a place where we can test the capacity of our regulatory and judicial regimes to deal with public officers who are determined to defy them. This will tell us the extent to which our systems have become dysfunctional and the work needed to fix them.

But we need all our systems to work together to prevent the abuse that the THA has visited upon us. I will be keeping my promise to detail how Town and Country, EMA and the police have contributed to the failure and suggesting how they might move to improve their operations to avoid repeats in the future. They are key parts of a properly regulated and accountable public service.

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