Minister’s ‘empty vessels’ comment prompts walk-out at Kwakwani meeting

Kwakwani residents yesterday walked out on Junior Local Government Minister Norman Whittaker after they took exception to an insult he directed to a resident at a community meeting.

“There is a saying which says empty vessels make the most noise,” Whittaker told over 150 residents at the Kwakwani Workers’ Club, as a resident intermittently made comments as he tried to respond to a question.

As a result, residents walked out in an angry show of their disgust at the statement. “Your eyes pass people. Who the hell you think you is? Calling people empty vessels?” shouted a resident who was among those who stormed out of the venue.

Residents who walked out of the meeting with Minister within the Ministry of Local Government chanting, “We come yah fuh tek it by force.”

As they left the building Whittaker attempted to apologise but the low-volume public address system did him no favours as his voice was drowned out by the loud and angry residents. “Okay come back, come back, I will apologise,” he said, as he stepped out onto the corridors but his appeals fell on deaf ears.

Only four members of the government-appointed Interim Management Committee (IMC) for the community were left seated in the building along with the sister of the meeting’s chairman, Assistant Regional Executive Officer Devon Bremner. Only six of the 15 IMC members were present at the meeting.

Residents, meanwhile, stood at the front of the building, clapping and chanting. “We come fuh tek it by force,” they repeated.

Before the floor was opened to residents to ask questions, Whittaker had implored them to engage in a meaningful discourse on issues such as health, education and infrastructure for Kwakwani.

It was clear that they were supporters of the citizen-elected committee and not the IMC that was installed to replace the community’s Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC). The installation of the IMC was strongly rejected by a majority of residents through a series of protests, while some members of the body said they were unaware of their appointments until they saw it reported in the newspapers. Government, meanwhile, has refused to recognise the legitimacy of the citizens’ committee as there was no legal authority for its establishment.

Resident Neil Patterson had called on the minister to apologise to residents for the manner in which the NDC was dismantled and the IMC installed. “You need to apologise for the way you come here and try to form an IMC. It was very disrespectful to come behind closed doors and handpick. [It] was a non-democratic move and you need to apologise to us before you continue this meeting here,” said Patterson.

“We are not here for sweet talks. The people in this room came here to say to you who they need to see run this community,” he added.

The environment in the club became very disruptive after Bremner was about to allow a fourth question before the minister responded. Initially, he had said that after three questions, Whittaker would have responded to questions posed by residents.

“I trust that you would be respectful,” Whittaker said before responding to the issues, a short while ahead of his offending statement.

‘No wrongdoing’

Stabroek News later contacted Whittaker at his hotel in Kwakwani after the meeting. “They were asking me to apologise but I don’t know of any wrongdoing that I should apologise for,” he said.

He added that the correct procedures, as set out in the Local Government Act, were followed, resulting in the installation of the IMC. “Following the petition, we had an inquiry which provided sufficient evidence for us to disband the NDC and install the IMC. That is the procedure according to law,” he reiterated.

According to Whittaker, the ministry remains committed to working with residents as individuals and groups alongside the IMC. During his opening remarks at the meeting, he had said that the government will continue to make the $3 million annual subvention for the community available to the IMC and that it was seeking to have the figure increased to $4.5 million.

He had also challenged the IMC to look at innovative ways of raising other funds for the execution of projects and activities in the community. He suggested the possibility of paid parking lots in addition to the establishment of a market committee, the collecting of rates and taxes and stall rentals.

After Whittaker left, residents returned to the club and announced that there would be a thanksgiving service today, where the committee members they elected would be introduced to the community. The committee would then outline its plans for the community. Residents would also be given the opportunity to make statements, raise issues of concern and identify priority issues.

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