Hundreds of Barbudans last night gave permission for billionaire investors James Packer and Robert De Niro to embark on the US$250 million redevelopment of the K Club in a highly confrontational meeting where police took former Barbuda Council member Fabian Jones into custody for disorderly conduct.
Two hundred and six people, by way of ballot, gave their consent while 175 voted against the project. When the results were announced, most people in the room began jumping and screaming “yesss.”
The people decided after over four long hours of mixed cheering, booing and name calling during the discourse which was mainly between officials of the opposition Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM) and the Chairman of the Barbuda Council and Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) MP Arthur Nibbs who chaired the event.
Several people questioned the process and reluctantly agreed to the requirement to write their names in full on the sheets of yellow writing paper, in the column headed “yes” or “no” for the project.
They formed a queue and voted, after which they were told to leave the building. Prime Minister Gaston Browne, who was standing near the head of the line, was greeted by several Barbudans during the process.
Barbudan resident John Mussington raised objection to the overall process and said it should have been done by “secret” ballot, in a process similar to what is done at council elections or general elections.
He told OBSERVER media he would be seeking to challenge the process as there’s no way of verifying whether those who voted are Barbudans, whether they voted twice or whether they used their own name among other things.
To this, Nibbs said, “If anybody (doesn’t) like what is going on they have a right to go to the court of law and challenge it. Don’t discuss anything about court here, people are voting.”
The meeting, held at Holy Trinity Primary School in Barbuda, started around 5:15 pm with Nibbs giving a run-down of the financial challenges faced by the Council which employs the majority of the working people on Barbuda.
In what could be considered a last minute effort to convince the people to give consent, he said, “The Council is a couple of months away from being totally bankrupt and therefore the Council supports this project. The Council owes workers five million dollars and the only way out of this is by foreign direct investment.”
He continued, “We are spending far more than we generate and we are seeking to strike a balance. We don’t want to tax you or send you home, that will cause people to start stealing. We need to create jobs, there is no private sector…Barbudans need to move away from the begging.”
Nibbs’ latter remark did not sit well with the attendees who began booing and shouting at him.
Prime Minster Browne spent several minutes trying to calm the gathering before he started his address. It was at that time that Jones asked why he was present and more so, why he was addressing the people when it should have been a meeting of the Council and the people.
When Jones refused to concede to Nibbs’ instruction to wait until the floor was opened for queries, Nibbs called on the police to escort him out. Jones continued asking the question as he walked towards the head table where PM Browne, Nibbs and Ambassador at large Gilbert Boustany were seated.
He was subsequently led out of the school’s main hall into the yard. Officers placed him in a white police pickup and drove off. Jones never returned and was released from police custody after the voting had been completed.
The meeting went downhill from there as attendees in the yard began shouting, “That is wrong.” “This is how they intend to run things?” “No intimidation.” “As soon as a certain person walked in here it was clear this thing is political.”
PM Browne eventually had his say to an audience that displayed mixed reactions to his presentation.
Thereafter, the gathering was invited to ask questions.
Discussions repeatedly went off-course and on several occasions the individual operating the PA system deliberately switched-off the microphone or turned it up that it screeched loudly when BPM officials continued asking questions even after Nibbs told them it was time to stop and move on to the next person.
This was repeatedly done to former councilman Mckenzie Frank, Marine Biologist John Mussington, and attorney Ralph Francis among others.
Former Council Chairman and BPM leader Trevor Walker almost suffered the same fate as Jones twice during the meeting. In the second instance, Nibbs insisted Walker step down from the podium and then called upon the police to escort him outside.
The PA system was switched-off, on Nibbs’ instruction, when Walker attempted to continue his presentation and make queries. Two senior police officers subsequently asked him to leave around 6:40 pm and after several minutes, he eventually complied.
An hour passed and the vote had not yet been done.
The people began showing their impatience with chants of “voting time, voting time, voting time”. It was not until two hours later that Nibbs announced, to the surprise of many, that the vote would be taken by way of ballot.
The voting process lasted nearly an hour during heavy rains and roaring thunder.
Barbudans, 18 years and older, were asked to decide whether De Niro and Packer should be allowed to develop a resort comprising 40 to 50 hotel pavilions/cottages each with a private pool, central hotel facilities among other things.
The reason the vote was sought is outlined in the Barbuda Land Act which states that all land in Barbuda belongs to the people of the island and further no major development on Barbuda should take place without agreement of the Cabinet and the Council and the consent of the people.
According to the Act, the order of approval for such development should be as follows: firstly, the Council shall obtain the consent of the people to the principle of the proposal; secondly, the proposal shall be considered and approved in detail by the Council; thirdly, if the proposal is approved in detail by the Council, the proposal shall be considered by the Cabinet and lastly, if the Cabinet agree to the proposal, the Council shall then obtain the consent of the people.
During the meeting, BPM council members charged that the aforementioned orders were not followed as Cabinet first looked at and approved the project and then it came to the people for agreement in principle. They, like attorney Ralph Francis who spoke at length, said this is unlawful and the process would be challenged.
They also expressed concern over the proposed length of the proposed lease – 198 years, and the amount of land to be given to the investors. The contention is that they investors should not get any land in addition to the 251 acres upon which the K Club sits.
The investors’ representatives who were in attendance – Guy Jalland for Packer and Mary Beth Medley for De Niro, sat silently, throughout the meeting which momentarily became quiet when one resident took to the podium and asked “What do we want? Do we want improvement for our country or we want to remain in the same position always and just watch our land? Think about that as you decide.”
The investors – in the Paradise Found LLC Memorandum of Agreement – propose to pay government US$6.45 million this month and it should be made up as follows: US$5.2 million should be towards pre-payments of all rent for the first 99 years of the new lease; US$1 million towards rent to be charged originally during the second 99 years of the new lease, but not to be during the first option period of 50 years and; US$250,000 for the Eco-lodge Land option.