By Kenton X. Chance
The erection of items at Brighton Salt Pond Recreation Park by Elroy Arthur aka Huffle, who is renting a vending station there from National Parks, Rivers and Beaches Authority, the state entity that manages the site, had been a concern of the government for months before some of them were dismantled on July 20.
In fact, the issue was raised at the level of the Cabinet last year and the board of National Parks was informed of this at a Dec. 7, 2022 meeting, an iWitness News investigation has found.
The topic was also the subject of discussion at various meetings of the National Parks board of directors, including on July 19, one day before the items were removed from the beach, according to multiple sources and documents seen by iWitness News.
In a video posted to Facebook on July 20, Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves, who is MP for East St. George, where the beach is located, said in the presence of Huffle, Minister of Tourism, Carlos James and Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Resa Noel-McBarnett, that neither James nor Noel-McBarnett knew about the removal of the items.
However, the iWitness News investigation found that the only thing that National Parks might have done “wrong”, was when a junior park ranger removed the items one day before the deadline given to Huffle to do so.
iWitness News was unsuccessful in its attempts to reach Gideon Nash, chair of the board of directors of National Park and Andrew Lockhart, the acting director.
However, we were reliably informed that on July 17, a team from National Parks, including Lockhart, met with Huffle and discussed the situation.
The team gave Huffle until July 21 to dismantle the items.
Further, the items were to be removed by Erwin Arthur, who serves in three roles at Brighton Salt Pond. Erwin Arthur is a site attendant employed by National Parks, a sea turtle monitor with the SVG Environment Fund, and the brother of and an assistant to Huffle.
iWitness News understands that Erwin Arthur had erected many of the “embellishments” that National Parks had complained about and had refused to dismantle them, as instructed by National Parks — his employer.
In light of this, the board gave a July 21 deadline for them to be removed, after which National Parks was to remove them, if Erwin Arthur had not done so.
PS who attended meetings remains silent in video
Noel-McBarnett said nothing in the video, although she was present at a meeting of the National Parks board just one day earlier, where Lockhart informed the board that he had spoken to Huffle, as instructed by the board, giving him until July 21 to remove the embellishments he had erected on site without consent.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said that the board of National Parks did not know about the demolition. However, Nash — head of the National Parks board — chaired the July 19 meeting.
Noel-McBarnett was also present at a May 31 meeting of the National Parks board, chaired by its deputy chairman and chief executive of the Tourism Authority, Glen Beache, at which the issue was raised.
The permanent secretary was also present on Feb. 15, at a meeting also chaired by Nash, at which Huffle’s activities at Brighton Salt Pond were discussed.
She also attended on Dec. 7, 2022, albeit via Zoom, a meeting of the board, that also discussed the issue. Fay-Ann Durham Richards, the representative of the Ministry of Finance on the National Parks Board, also attended that meeting.
James was also present when Gonsalves made his comments in the video and one source, mused:
“Is it that these public servants representing their ministries on various boards do not report back to their minister?”
The July 19 board meeting also instructed the management of National Parks to conduct a follow-up visit to the Brighton site to ensure that the items were removed and to take photo/videos when this was being done.
Board orders that Huffle’s gets separate electricity metre
But the embellishments were not the only concern of the National Parks board meeting on July 19.
The board also instructed National Parks to have the Electrical Inspectorate evaluate the wiring of the site and to instruct the Bridges, Roads and General Services Authority, another state agency, to rewire the buildings so that the vending kiosks will have separate electrical meters.
This was based on the board’s ongoing concern that the electricity bill had gone past or was competing with the amount of money being generated by the site, in light of the fact that Huffle and his team had erected floodlights at the facility, which was not meant to remain open after dark.
The board further ordered that there be a meeting with Erwin Arthur — the site attendant and Huffle’s brother –who had allegedly said that he would not dismantle the items.
Andrew Woodroffe, who represents the SVG Chamber of Industry and Commerce on the National Parks board, along with Nash, the board’s chairman, was also supposed to attend that meeting.
Issue raised at Cabinet
The iWitness News investigation revealed that at a Dec. 7, 2022 meeting, chaired by Nash, the National Parks board rejected Huffle’s request that it offsets his rent for losses of goods valued at EC$4,000 at the Brighton Salt Pond, when the facility was burglarised.
Lockhart told the directors the issue of the tenant being allowed to install structures on the property at his own discretion was brought up at a Cabinet meeting.
The board was informed that a letter was written to Huffle and a meeting with him to address the matter was pending.
Then on Feb. 15, 2023, Nash chaired a meeting of National Parks directors, which received an update, following on from their meeting of Dec. 7, 2022.
Directors learnt that Calisha Solomon, administrative manager at National Parks, had met with Huffle and informed him that he was owing EC$3,000 in rental payments. The meeting was also informed that Huffle’s installation of LED lights at the site was the cause of the increased electricity bill.
There were also allegations that electricity at the site was being sold to patrons.
The board requested photographs of the LED lights installed and proposed that a letter be written to Huffle regarding the terms and conditions of the vending agreement.
The board decided that if Huffle did not comply that he be written to a second time and if the breaches persist, a letter of termination of the contract should be issued to him.
Nash asked that National Parks meets with Huffle on Feb. 20, 2023.
Glen Beache wanted lease reviewed
During the May 31 board meeting, directors learnt that National Parks had written to Huffle and officers had visited the site.
The board heard that Huffle had agreed to settle his outstanding debt of EC$1,250 in instalments.
Solomon told the board that once the new grant agreement was renewed, Huffle’s rental fees of EC$300 per kiosk per month would be increased and Beache, the deputy chair of the board, said that Huffle should be liable for paying his own electricity bill.
Lockhart explained to the board that the problem was that the beach site only has one electricity metre.
Beache, therefore, requested that VINLEC be contacted to have separate meters installed for the vending kiosks.
The meeting further noted that Huffle had a key to the main office at the Brighton Salt Pond and the board requested that the locks be changed to prevent Huffle from having access to the office space.
Beache asked that Huffle’s lease agreement be reviewed to include a list of permitted and prohibited activities.
The deputy chair further instructed that the agreement be sent to him by the first week of June 2023 so that the legal counsel for the SVG Tourism Authority could review it.
And, the July 17 meeting with Huffle was a follow up to one held with him at Brighton Salt Pond in February.
The meeting reminded Huffle of the request by National Parks that he remove the spotlights and other embellishments at the site. The visit to Brighton was also made so as to update the board of directors at their July 19 meetings.
National Parks had deemed a number of Huffle’s embellishments at the site to be “inappropriate, unsanitary and not in keeping with established standards and guidelines” for sites it manages.
iWitness News was reliably informed that during the July 17 meeting, National Parks discussed with Huffle the items to be dismantled and the reasons for doing so.
Among the reasons given was safety and security, public liability, sanitation, aesthetics and sea turtle conservation.
Meanwhile, at the July 19 meetings, the board decided to instruct a legal counsel to revise the vendor’s lease agreement to make clear to Huffle what is permitted and prohibited on the site.
The board further decided that a meeting would be held with Huffle to discuss the agreement.
National Park crew responded to emergency situation
The removal of the items from the Brighton Salt Pond on July 20, one day before the deadline, came after a crew was sent to the facility in response to an emergency situation, where a tree had tumbled over and was at risk of damaging the roof of one of the buildings.
It was during this operation that the junior park ranger began to disassemble the items that Huffle had until the next day to remove.
The situation came to the attention of the public when someone began broadcasting live on Facebook as the dismantling was being done.
‘a can ah war’
In the live video, an unidentified male said:
“They now open a can ah war down yah. We nah joke you know. In the 90s when down yah ah clean up, nobody nah been know Salt Pond. Not ah soul nah been know Salt Pond. So now, they wah come yah and dictate? Camillo boy, me sorry for you ah nuh. If this ah way you ah allow, you gone you know. Trust me. Yo gone, brother.”
The person said he did not know what was going on with the “higher authorities” as Salt Pond had not disturbed anyone. He said they needed some answers.
Another male said the dismantling of the items was “not a good look for the community at all…
“Huffle, weh the woman who run ‘gainst Camillo name again? We need to get she in a meeting, brother…” the man said.
He was referring to Lavern Gibson-Velox of the main opposition New Democratic Party, who shaved Gonsalves’ margin of victory from 607 votes in 2015 to 196 in 2020, her first electoral outing.
“It’s time to switch gear,” the second man commented. “Dem people who Labour employ tell themselves they too powerful right now. Time to switch gear man.”
He said that people would come and relax and read books on the benches that they were being destroyed.
The man said he felt like parking a car in front of the National Parks jeep into which the dismantled items were being loaded.
“They start a war dem nah been really want. Tell dem dah road down yah easy fuh block,” the man said, adding that “the manager” should be moved “tomorrow, tomorrow self because down yah nah he’s buy land (private property)”.
‘arbitrary, … capricious, … wrong’
Meanwhile, in the video posted the night after the items were dismantled, the finance minister noted that he was in the presence of “mi pardna Huffles” and Noel-McBarnett, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, which Gonsalves noted, has responsibly for parks and beaches.
The finance minister and constituency representative said he was in a meeting that day when he learnt that National Parks had gone to the beach and destroyed Huffle’s property.
“I want to say, unequivocally, not only was it not done with my authority, to the extent that I have authority there, it was not done with the authority of the Ministry of Tourism, which has responsibility for parks and beaches. This was a complete surprise to me; it was an unauthorised act, it was arbitrary, it was capricious, it was wrong,” Gonsalves said.
He said the National Parks workers had dumped the items removed from the site onto private property next door.
“I don’t know when parks and beaches began creating litter in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he said.
“The private property belonging to Huffles, he will have to be compensated for it and the structures that he put up were put up with the full knowledge of the Ministry of Tourism,” Gonsalves said.
At this point, it appeared that the tourism minister arrived at the site and Gonsalves said, “Look, I have the Minister of Tourism here has some to join me.”
Gonsalves noted that James has ministerial responsibility for parks and beaches.
“We have come down here to tell Huffles that we apologise for what happened, that it was done without authority and that he will be compensated for the damage that has been caused to his private property.
“I don’t know who authorised it, I don’t know why whatever was authorised was done in such a heavy-handed manner…”
Gonsalves said he visits the beach regularly.
“Everything that Huffles has put down here was put down with my knowledge, he’s put down with the Minister’s knowledge, he’s put down with the PS’s knowledge and I don’t know who decided that they were going to come and become a law unto themselves and destroy his property without due process.
“It cannot happen, we are sorry it happened, it will not happen again and we fully support Huffle’s management of this facility,” he said of the site that is in fact managed by National Parks.
“When the beach was jungle, it was Huffle and his brethren who made it what it was,” Gonsalves said, referring to Brighton Beach Rollers, of which Huffle and his brother were members.
“They built a facility here. The facility, over time, fell apart. We decided to build a new facility here,” the finance minister said, adding that Huffle was the first person the government spoke to about what it was going to do in the area.
“When we got the shops, the first and only applicant to come down here and set up a shop – because nobody thought they would make money down here—the applicant who came down here was Huffle’s; the person who signed a contract was Huffle’s; the person who cleans up the beach is Huffle’s; the person who’s taken his time and labour and put up all of these things is Huffle’s.
“And I don’t know who thought that they could come here and destroy his hard work or the hard work of the Ministry of Finance or the hard work of the Ministry of Tourism.”
Both kiosks rented to Huffle despite other applicant
However, iWitness News was reliably informed that while the two kiosks at the site were rented to Huffle, he was not the only person who had applied to operate there.
A well-placed source told iWitness News that during Andrew Wilson’s stint as director of National Parks, another person had spoken and written to Wilson expressing interest in renting one of the vending kiosks.
The application, a returnee from the UK, had purchased crockery because “he had been assured or was pretty confident” that he would be rented one of the kiosks, the source said on condition of anonymity.
MP suggests National Parks clean up seaweed
Meanwhile, in his video, Gonsalves said:
“If National Parks and Beaches wants to come down here, of course, they are welcome. The beach is covered in seaweed, they could clean up some of the sargassum, they could work with Huffles in a way to make sure that everything is done in accordance with the right regulations or whatever.
“But what they cannot do is drive down here in the middle of the day, with no authorisation and send rangers to pull down his property and throw it away like it is garbage. It is not garbage.”
He said Huffle has made the beach a unique attraction that draws a Sunday crowd of up to 400 people.
“We love him for his investment and his sweat and tears in this particular beach and we support him fully in his efforts down here and I am very happy that he has given a life and a soul to this facility,” the finance minister said.
He said the government can build the beach facility but it takes people like Huffle “to give it a soul and give it energy”
James, speaking to Huffle in the same video, said:
“Comrade, this is a very important project that we worked together to build. You know that and we value your contribution here and as the minister – your MP – the minister of finance said, we were in a consultation today and we weren’t even aware that this was taking place. And you know, the very first person you should call in a situation like this is your MP… We came out of the consultation and we came to get an assessment… and we have to make this right.”
Gonsalves chimed in, “and we will make it right”. Referring to Huffle, the East St. George MP added, “You know I always in your corner, comrade.”
PM denies gov’t knew, authorised dismantling
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves held a point press conference with James last Friday, July 28, at which iWitness News questioned them about the site and the development involving National Parks.
Gonsalves had said at the press conference that National Parks has no jurisdiction at the Brighton Salt Pond.
Responding to questions from iWitness News, the prime minister said the Ministry of Agriculture would normally deal with beaches that are not directly under National Parks.
“And that the authority there for the destruction of anything would be the … Physical Planning Board of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” the prime minister said.
Gonsalves was in Morocco on official business when the items were dismantled and he said he called Huffle, who said, “… ‘give me some board and so on. We can fix up back; we could put up back the thing’.
“I said, ‘Absolutely not. The state will rebuild it. And we will rebuild it better’,” the prime minister said.
He said the finance minister had already engaged an architect in the Ministry of Economic Planning to deal with the matter.
“In the meanwhile, I think a couple of the benches are going to be delivered soon. Look, people enjoy that place,” the prime minister said.
He said he had not spoken to National Parks about the dismantling of the items.
“I don’t know … the minister who is responsible for it — Carlos is here — whether Carlos has spoken to them or what is happening. I believe that what you do we just watch over the next few days and weeks. And we will see what would happen down at Brighton,” Gonsalves said.
The prime minister said that people act in unauthorised ways for all kinds of reasons “ranging from misapprehension of something … to straight malice.
“I don’t know in the continuum from zero to 10, from misapprehension to malice. All I know, it was unauthorised: the minister did not authorise it, the Chairman of the Board did not authorise it, the board did not authorise it — the board of National Parks.
“National Parks did not have the authority to break it down. These are things which I can speak with absolute certainty. The minister told me he did not authorise it. The permanent secretary didn’t know about it,” the prime minister said.
Minister would say what I said — PM
But iWitness News told the prime minister that James was right next to him and could say whether he had asked National Parks about the basis on which it had acted as it did.
The prime minister said:
“Well, he can tell you. But he will tell you the same thing what I just tell you…”
When James took to the microphone, he said,
“Quite frankly, the actions were not authorised and the state will do their necessary investigation and act accordingly on the basis of those findings.”
But iWitness News pointedly asked James if he had asked National Parks what was the basis on which it had acted.
“There are reports being compiled at the moment.”
“But have you asked? That’s the question,” iWitness News told the minister.
“There are reports and, in the reports, we will have that information.”
But when pushed further to answer the question, James said:
“If you have asked of the persons in charge at National Parks to provide reports on the incident, it is clearly the same thing you are asking as to which authorisation have you been given to demolish the property. But I will say this, the state will act accordingly. And you will see, as the prime minister indicated, in a few weeks, as it relates to that.”
Meanwhile, the prime minister said that as far as he was aware, the items that National Parks removed had been erected on land belonging to the government.
Gonsalves said he was aware that the National Parks crew had said that they had come to chop trees.
“And Huffles is a very generous man. He was cooking Pelau. Fellas eat Huffles Pelau and then say, ‘Well now we ha’ break down this thing you know’,” Gonsalves said.
Two-year promise fulfilled in days
However, on Monday, July 31, Huffle told iWitness News that he prepares pelau for sale every day and could not say whether the National Parks crew had paid for what they ate.
“Par you get all dem story dey?” he said when asked about the meal.
“How the thing happen so funny I can’t even remember if they end up pay…” he said of the National Parks team.
“Because what happen nah been supposed to happen. Me nah been expect that because they come fuh chop down the tree and certain thing and somebody must be come with a different thing in dem head”.
Huffle denied that National Parks had given him any warning to remove the items, saying that they had “few meeting but just things like light and dem thing they.
“Nothing major about remove thing and mash down thing,” Huffle told iWitness News at the facility.
He said he first knew on the day that the items were removed that National Parks wanted them to be removed.
“They talk about some little thing before but nah no big major thing. They just talk about some the sign and do dem a little better then,” the businessman said.
Huffle told iWitness News that his brother had put up some signs but National Parks had said they would have had them redone and include the state agency’s logo.
Asked whether he was given until the July 21 to move the items, Huffle said, “Something like dat dem bin say”.
He said he was not in the meeting and that is what he heard the people who work there say.
“Is just the sign they say they want replace — the sign and dem and put them on a better board. The way the man dem move that day out of control. What somebody give him is a different order”.
He said National Parks had spoken to him about the lights saying he was not supposed to have erected them.
“But Camillo been tell me leave dem because they are part of security,” he said.
He said that the removal of the items was kind of “surprise and funny but does come good in the long run…
“They promise we dem things day two years ago and they come now,” he said, referring to benches that the government delivered to the site after the incident.
Huffle said that two of the benches were brought on Friday, July 28, and six on Monday, July 31, and two more were expected to be delivered.
He pointed to the benches he had built out of pallet wood, adding that the government said it would give someone a contract to rebuild others like those.
The businessman said he was happy with the outcome “for now, because man like you tek up the story”.
Huffle told iWitness News that he had been operating at the beach for more than 30 years, noting that National Park was put in charge about two years ago after the facility was built.
He confirmed that he pays his rent to National Parks.
“Man, ah National Parks in charge,” he said adding that to him the stage agency was not paying attention to the facility.