Lucea mayor quits over Fiesta Hotel

LUCEA, HANOVER, Jamaica – Following the resignation of Lester Crooks as mayor of Lucea and chairman of the Hanover Parish Council Monday, Local Government Minister Dean Peart says a thorough investigation will be launched into the former mayor’s decision to discount building fees to the developers of the Fiesta Hotel at Point Estate in Lucea.

Auditors from the Local Government Ministry have also been called in to investigate the matter.

A teary-eyed Mr. Crooks, the Jamaica Labour Party councillor for the Riverside Division in Hanover, resigned two days ahead of a scheduled meeting with Minister Peart to discuss his company’s trucking contract with the developers of the 1,600-room Fiesta hotel in Lucea.

In a letter to Crooks last Thursday, Mr. Peart told the former mayor that his involvement with the hotel posed a conflict of interest, as the council was the Local Planning and Building Authority for the parish, and that his involvement with the Fiesta Hotel Group was “contrary to the principles of transparency and good governance which the council is expected to uphold.”

But Peart hinted yesterday that there could be other factors behind Crooks’ resignation that required investigation.

“I know that there are other things,” Peart told The Gleaner/Power 106 News Centre yesterday. “If you are the mayor and you have a trucking company for over 30 years now and you have a contract to do trucking on a site, why would you resign as mayor,” Peart argued.

Last year, the Hanover Parish Council voted to give Fiesta a 25 per cent reduction on its building fees. Close to year end, the council submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Local Government requesting $23 million for undertaking capital projects, focusing on primary road rehabilitation from the $43 million received for building fees from the US$60 million (J$4 billion) Fiesta Hotel. The remaining portion of the money, according to Secretary/Manager of the council Alfred Graham, was to be shared between the seven parish councillors to undertake development projects in their respective divisions.

“As for the discount that he gave Fiesta (on building fees) I have to look into that also,” Peart said yesterday.

Following the handing in of his resignation letter Councillor Crooks told The Gleaner that “a burden had been taken off” his shoulders, and his family was happy that he had resigned.

“What I Lester Crooks have accomplished in this town of Lucea, no other Mayor in history has ever accomplished that,Ó he said. ÒI know my wife is happy because she is always saying when this day comes when I walk out of politics she will be a happy woman.”

Councillor Crooks said he was contemplating resigning as councillor for the Riverside Division, but that he would first have to consult his constituents before making such a move.

With Councillor Crooks” resignation councillor for the Hopewell Division and Deputy Mayor of Lucea, Vasca Brown, automatically assumes duties as Mayor and Chairman of the Council. Councillor Audley Gilpin of the Lucea Division is expected to assume duties as Deputy Mayor.

Two Wednesdays ago, the council placed a stop order on the construction of the Fiesta hotel after the developers breached nine conditions of the building permit. The stop order had followed a demonstration the week before, where scores of construction workers demonstrated outside the site in protest against unhealthy working conditions and low wages. The workers had complained that there were insufficient toilets, a lack of potable water, no medical facilities, or facilities for obtaining food or for sheltering.

However, during the regular monthly meeting of the council last Thursday, then Mayor Crooks and councillors Sheridan Samuels, Lloyd Hill and Fredrocious Miller voted for the resumption of construction at the site despite objections from Councillors Gilpin, Deputy Mayor Vasca Brown and Albert Chang. The three councillors had voiced their opposition to the resumption of construction at the site, as the hotel had still not fulfilled all the conditions of the permit and had not submitted all the structural reports to the Superintendent of Roads and Works.

Following the vote on the resumption of work at the site, Crooks later revealed that he had a contract with Fiesta and sought permission to withdraw from any ‘future discussions or decision-making between Fiesta and the council’. At the time he said residents in the parish had been speculating about his involvement with the developers.

But the councillors rejected the mayor’s request. Councillor of the Cauldwell Division Sheridan Samuels, told the mayor that if he wanted to opt out of discussions regarding the hotel, it would be best if he first resign as chairman of the council.

Councillor Samuels had said the mayor had already voted on many other issues relating to the Fiesta development and that the council would have to revisit all the other issues and exclude the mayor from them. He said the mayor’s presence had already influenced things when council was unaware of his contract with Fiesta. Councillor Samuels added that that while his contract with the Fiesta Hotel Group may appear to be unethical, it was not unlawful.

And last August, Fiesta representatives announced that the construction of the hotel could be delayed for a year, if an environmental permit was not granted ‘within the next two months’ by the National Environment and Planning Agency, prompting an emergency press conference called by the Mayor.

The Hotel group had claimed it was contemplating postponing the project, as it was losing thousands of US-dollars daily. It said it would concentrate on its other overseas projects and return to Hanover a year later.

During that meeting, the former Mayor said NEPA was tardy, and should have already approved the project. He said despite repeated calls to NEPA, the environmental agency had refused to respond to him “in writing” regarding the status of the Fiesta application. He threatened to lead a delegation to Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller to seek intervention and expediency, if NEPA still refused to respond to him.

But Public Relations Manager for NEPA, Zadie Neufville told The Gleaner at the time that the agency would not bow to political pressure, and would only grant the environmental permit based on scientific findings. She said then due diligence would have to be done and that NEPA ‘would not be responding to any letter from any politician’ as it had to ensure the concerns raised by the community and NGOs are looked at.

She also said NEPA could not “be pandering to the whim of any developer or politician” as the agency could not influence the project.” However that same day, Minister Peart announced that the permit would be granted in a few days and the Fiesta hotel commenced work in October.