Fri | Apr 16, 2021

Power surrender worthy of debate, says Charles - Dry Harbour row opens window for tribunal to trump ministers in overruling decisions

Published:Wednesday | December 2, 2020 | 12:06 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter
Pearnel Charles Jr, who heads the superministry portfolio of housing, urban renewal, environment and climate change, has bristled against the perception that ministers who overruled state agencies were open to, or guilty of, corruption.
Pearnel Charles Jr, who heads the superministry portfolio of housing, urban renewal, environment and climate change, has bristled against the perception that ministers who overruled state agencies were open to, or guilty of, corruption.

While disagreeing that the exercise of ministerial power to override decisions of the state environmental regulator casts a shadow over officials’ integrity, Pearnel Charles Jr said that there may be cause to reopen the debate on having an independent tribunal making those calls.

Charles Jr, minister of housing, urban renewal, environment and climate change, said that governments in the past have considered whether final appellate responsibility should rest with an actual tribunal outside of the minister.

“Whatever process serves the best interest of achieving an outcome that makes sense for the people of Jamaica, I will agree with. In this case, I think there is merit in discussing seriously whether a tribunal of independent persons could serve well in this capacity – I think there is merit,” Charles said in a recent interview with The Gleaner.

His remarks come against the background of the recent controversy over the move by the Holness administration to reverse a decision by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) to reject, in May, an application by Bengal Development Limited to carry out mining and quarrying in designated areas of the Dry Harbour Mountain in St Ann.

The company subsequently appealed NEPA’s verdict and the Government rescinded the regulatory body’s decision.

A chorus of voices from environmental and civil-society groups has railed against the Government’s move.

Charles made it clear that while he welcomed the discussion on the tribunal of independent persons to consider appeals concerning environmental permits, this does not suggest that a minister lacks the proficiency to decide.

“What would cause me to be open to that kind of discussion is the almost inherent scepticism, because of how our politics has evolved, and so, as politicians, we are operating in a society that we know is cynical, and for good reason,” he said.

The question of whether a minister should have the power to overrule the decision of an environmental agency in Jamaica has been discussed by various stakeholders for years.

In a 2010 performance audit report, the Auditor General’s Department recommended that “stakeholders agreed that the power of the portfolio minister to overturn NEPA’s decisions, based on environmental and planning concerns, impacts the accountability and transparency of the process”.

The recommendation further stated: “The appeal process could be assigned to an independent body as is the practice in many countries, including those of the Caribbean.”

The 2010 audit focused on NEPA’s role in protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development.

Discussing the Dry Harbour Mountain spat in a recent interview, Charles said the minister, in exercising his discretion, has not done anything that could be deemed harmful to his reputation.

“The authority reposed in a minister in this way is not unusual. We have a democratic society. Our political system affords all over 18 years the opportunity to enumerate and vote and to select persons who you want, based on whatever your reasons are, to lead and to make decisions.”

Charles said that NEPA rests within the Andrew Holness-headed Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, citing that as the reason why he had not made public pronouncements on the environmental dispute.

He told The Gleaner that the law set up the parameters within which an appeal can be made, and in this case “I have not seen or heard even the activists suggest that the process was tarred or that the process was unusual”.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com