With the COVID-19 pandemic converting sections of all sectors to an online platform, Deputy Mayor of Montego Bay, Councillor Richard Vernon insists the capital must become a ‘Smart City’, aided by the Community Access Point (CAPs) programme that was initiated in 2009.
The CAP initiative aims to provide greater access to online learning through established internet access facilities, open to all members of a community or district. This will contract the digital divide and improve access for all to information; thus fostering a smoother transition to a ‘Smart City.’
In an in-depth Mckoy’s News exclusive interview, the Councillor outlined a plan, concept and futuristic goals that could be achieved from the CAPs programme. This sat down interview also underscored and explored a wider aspect of social and political issues in the parish of St. James, through the eyes of Mr. Vernon; as well as highlighted the impacts of COVID-19 on tourism, the business community and citizens of the city.
An interesting revelation was also made through a personal journey of the Richard Vernon’s story.
Natasha Williams: Following the recent Community Access Point (CAPs) initiative in several communities, schools and clubs in Montego Bay, how impactful has this programme been, during this COVID-19 era with the aim of fostering the development of Montego Bay becoming a ‘Smart City?’
Richard Vernon: The Access Point is really just a start in becoming a Smart City. The government at the central level, has been doing much work through their programmes to collate all government information from across agencies and organizations into one incubator, more popularly known as GovNet; so they can have access to information and know what’s happening right across the board. This is a great approach to achieving one of the sustainable development goals, where cities will be smarter by 2030.
Here in Montego Bay and across the municipality as a whole, having the Access Point is very important, because it introduces technology and internet to the more vulnerable communities. Once persons get more familiar with technology and can access the internet, this exposure will help them to become technologically inclined, which enables them to move to a higher level.
In terms of us becoming a Smart City, it will require tying our information and communication technology from fire, police, the Municipal Corporation and all other government agencies that we interact with on a day to day basis, into a platform accessible to the public for better quality government service. In a Smart City, all the tenets of information are intertwined so we can manage and get an instant update on what is happening…we want to have everything tied into a hub, so we can pull up the [information] in an instant and have the systems interacting…therefore, it’s really about the city using information and communication technology to improve their operational efficiency. The smart city initiative began in 2009 and include several other projects.
Natasha Williams: Apart from the CAPs initiative are there any other new projects in the pipeline that you along with the St. James Municipal Corporation are working on for the city?
Richard Vernon: At the municipal corporation, what we have done relatively recent, is to distribute almost 200 tablets to students across the parish. That was a local push to improve access to ICT, in light of virtual learning and because the world is heading in that direction, a smart world, with smart countries and cities…no one should be left behind. The CAPs is from the Ministry of Technology…through the Universal Service Fund (USF), they are ensuring that communities [and] town spaces have access to internet and computer devices…it is their mandate to ensure that no community, rural or urban is left behind. It is all about bridging that gap in the digital divide and that is also our aim at this point.
Natasha Williams: On the topic of COVID-19 and its impact, what are some of the most devastating effects it has had on the parish of Montego Bay and how is the Municipal Corporation helping in restoring the business communities and it’s economy, as well as assisting the citizens of Mobay?
Richard Vernon: One of the main areas that COVID has impacted is the economy. In Montego Bay, being on the resilient corridor and being the tourism capital of Jamaica… The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the economy, especially being the tourism capital. We had a real crunch here. When the pandemic intensified and we started experiencing partial lockdowns in March of last year, we lost hundreds of workers in the tourism industry, who had to find other means of survival…and with the airports closing to leisure tourism, many persons went home. Consequently, taxes weren’t being paid…income stopped flowing into the households and our economy contracted. That is why we had a major loss, in terms of growth, our GDP [Gross Domestic Product] went down and of course, our production level went down drastically.
We have been affected in other areas…the pandemic has had a very devastating impact not only in tourism, but right across the board where the general economy, not just local, employment, micro/macro economy all have been affected.
However, with the place reopening gradually and people going back to work… I’m confident that our training institutions can turn over enough trained and professional persons to fill the vacancies that have been created by the pandemic in the hotel industry and to ensure that our visitors and locals visiting the hotels, get the tip-top service that they would have paid for.
So, we’re looking to go forward and I’m very optimistic that we will recover faster than we anticipated and our people most importantly, will be earning again so they can contribute to the continuous development of St. James.
What is the Municipal Corporation doing to help? At our level, we are responsible for the Local Economic Development Plan and through our Local Economic Development Initiatives…for the past three (3) years, we have been providing grants to small business operators…Once you can present to the corporation, a plan for the business, showing that it is sustainable, then you’ll qualify for a business grant upon review.
We injected over $10,000,000 into the local economy over the past year. We are currently working on new tranches to inject into the local economy once more. We do this division by division and we do it this way to create wealth through small businesses.
Partnership with China: We also have what is called the ‘Sister Cities Committee’ at the Municipal Corporation, where we twin with another municipality in another country. Montego Bay was recently twinned with Zhuhai in China…they are a flourishing city and we would like to strengthen our diplomatic relations with them, so we can mutually benefit from this bilateral arrangement. We will be looking at possibilities of student exchange programmes, as well as businesses and commerce opportunities. We even envision a scenario where we engage the City of Zhuhai with a view to trade, providing mutual markets to facilitate comparative advantages. This could be a great opportunity for our cottage industries and for other local producers here in Montego Bay. If we can strategically inject money from the Municipal Corporation’s Local Economic Development Programme into our local economy by boosting small business operators, giving them the chance to trade on the international and regional markets, we stand to earn foreign exchange, this in very important for our dollar.
We are currently working on our Local Economic Development and our Local Sustainable Development Plan. The LSDP is an overall plan for the parish that will deal with our disaster plans, management of land use…and also our economy. We are talking about extensive sustainable economic development, not just in farming but also aquaculture…and all the operations taking place within the parish. This is what we are doing to bolster the economy and to help Jamaica to recover. We believe all municipalities should do the same, so we can grow collectively as a country.
Natasha Williams: Since the government’s announcement about gradually reopening the country, what changes have you seen in the tourism and entertainment sectors in the Montego Bay areas? Also, from a Councillor and Deputy Mayor’s standpoint, what are your personal views on this reopening?
Richard Vernon: “We have to reopen at some point. A significant number of Jamaicans live from pay cheque to pay cheque. When you close a country and there is no pay, then they don’t have anything to live from to from;” he laughed.
Following that brief moment of breaking the seriousness of the situations, the Deputy Mayor continued.
The government is very much aware of the situation…the Prime Minister gets technical and scientific information which guides the policy decisions of the government. This information directs the administration on matters of measures, such as when to implement a curfew or not or the time required. This pressure experienced by some during a lockdown, can breed frustration. This frustration is not merely due to the lockdown, but because people are broke.
So it’s not really about the party and entertainment that they are unable to attend, from my point of view, it is their ability to earn a living during that time.
When the entertainment sector reopens many persons benefit [from this sector], they earn from hosting events, from buying and selling liquor on consignment…they earn from weddings and event planning, at the hotels they work as entertainment coordinators…cultural bands and art performers. There is a whole range of niche operators that benefit from the reopening of the entertainment industry.
Relaxing the measures, is not really about the government being under pressure…it’s really about the livelihood of our people; and the government is aware that many people benefit from the entertainment sector. So even though other areas are gradually reopening, you realize that a brunt of the population that depends on entertainment as a way of life, is still in a period of frustration. A significant number of our citizens do not have a structured income, their income is seasonal to a party…or dependent on their ability to hustle. As a result, it’s important for the government to gradually reopen so everyone can get an opportunity to earn again.
Some of the changes Vernon observed since the announcement: “Thus far, a number of persons have…jumped back to the fish fry. These events require smaller numbers of people, so they try to keep it under 100 people. At 100 people and under, they need approval from the Municipal Corporation to host these events and that is how we play our part in managing this process.”
I also note that a number of party promoters are tuning up their sound systems and turning on their printers for event posters once more. While we want to party though, we must be mindful of protocols to manage the pandemic. That is priority number one, in getting back to some level of normalcy.
In regards to the reopening, I see positive indicators, we just have to manage these spaces and follow the protocols. Economically, the indicators are very positive. Flight arrivals showing confidence of other countries in us as a destination, Airbnb, hotels and a of course, the return of the foreign currencies.
Based on these observations, would you advice more locals to get vaccinated?
Based on the scientific and professional advice, the vaccine works. I will encourage persons to take it, but I don’t support forcing anyone to take it… it is your social responsibility to do the right thing, as long as what is being considered as “right”, does not harm you or violates your belief system.
Ultimately, vaccination is about reducing the number of ill persons and deaths, nipping the spread so we can get back to our life.
If you’re a person who can’t afford to go to a private hospital in the event of becoming ill, then probably you should consider taking it [the vaccine] (as it will reduce the impact of the virus based on the data), because you’re going to put pressure on the public health system. You cannot be using the public space and facilities and not willing to do what is necessary to protect that space, that’s the reality.
So then, I encourage the government to continue urging persons to take it and I would encourage persons to take it especially if you cannot afford private healthcare.
GET TO KNOW THE LIGHTER SIDE OF MOBAY’S DEPUTY MAYOR
Natasha Williams: Let’s step away a little from politics and COVID and zoom in on your personal growth and achievements. Was it always your dream to get involved in politics or did your plans derail somewhere along the way?
Richard Vernon: He chuckled in amusement then replied, “While attending Rusea’s High School, sixth form I recall, one of my batch mate asked, ‘So Vernon, what you planning to do when you leave school?’ my answer was, ‘I plan to do politics and business.’ To this day he’s still laughing in disbelief and saying ‘you are doing exactly what you said you would have done 13 years ago’
I made that statement 13 years ago, during that time I completed Rusea’s High School, graduated from UWI with a Political Science and Economics degree, set up a few businesses and being elected as a Councillor for four years, among a few other achievements.
Funny though, because I was originally enrolled to do Law and I differed it the first time due to late entry and upon receiving a package for government at the same time. In my second year, the package came and I said to my father, ‘Daddy you know I got the Law package, what should I do?’, my father said, ‘Man, gwaan go do the Political Science and Economics because mi go down a courthouse and mi see some of the Lawyers dem shoes a drop off a dem foot.’ Vernon recalled as he burst out in laughter…
He quickly explained that ‘it was his [father] way of saying that there were too many Lawyers in the system, so do something else.’
As a result, I decided to do the Social Sciences which I don’t regret, because it has made me rounded. I have limited legal knowledge, but I can be scientific when necessary and I like to understand the social and scientific nature of systems, this way I can explain their operation and modify it. When you are in the [political] field, it is good to be able to do that, you can relate through political psychology (not to manipulate anyone), but use it in decoding the problems that constituents cannot express at a particular level and to find the solutions that they can appreciate and relate to.
It therefore gives you the ability to communicate to constituents, my plans and intentions and how we can work together to make their communities better. I believe that persons in politics should be trained or exposed to the sciences and concepts, so we can be more impactful…
“So yes, I’ve always wanted to do politics, my dream was not derailed. In fact, it has been realized;” Vernon confidently expressed in laughter.
Natasha Williams: Since you’re now living your dream of always wanting to be in the political sphere which has led to you attaining the role as Montego Bay’s Deputy Mayor at such a ‘youthful’ age, please enlighten the public on what your role entails and how do you find the experience thus far?
Richard Vernon: As Deputy Mayor, I’m the substantive deputy, it is not an operational office as with municipalities in other jurisdictions, where their deputies are assigned certain responsibilities. The deputy by law, in the Local Governance Act, deputizes and deputies are often referred to as the ‘Essential Deputy’ because the Deputy Mayor’s office activates when the Mayor is out of office. So should the Mayor leave the country or is unable to perform his job, then I will have to deputize and at that point, I will be styled as the acting Mayor. The law would then provide for one of my colleague Councillors to be elected as the Acting Deputy Mayor.
Roles: However, I have a physical office in which I see persons from various constituencies in the parish and I also aid the Mayor with getting certain documents processed and signed…I also chair certain committees by way of meeting regulations, (how we operate at the municipal corporation).
The experience has been great and even though it’s a substantive role, I must to be aware of all the happenings at the corporation, be at all the meetings and monitor matters of infrastructure and traffic within the parish.
Natasha Williams: Futuristically, what most are you looking forward to fulfilling from this career path?
Richard Vernon: In a calm and collective tone Mr. Vernon replied, “Honestly, I would appreciate moving up…serving as a Senator or a Minister, but politics in a very strange discipline, it is dynamic and it changes from time to time, so we’ll see”
You have to live in the moment, understand what is happening around you, do continuous diagnostics of your surrounding and strategically clear the path while moving forward, then you can say ‘alright this is what I want to do.’
According to our Minister of National Security, Dr. Horace Chang, ‘A day in politics is like a lifetime;’ until you are in the position, you will never understand that statement.
Leadership gets lonely from time to time and there are times you feel you are on this mission by yourself and you’re not getting the support that you need, but another day you see all the support flowing in. You just have to live in the moment and know how to manage yourself. Stay true to who you are and your purpose, don’t change for anything or anybody and stay true to the people who you serve. Ultimately, they are the ones who determine where I go next, not me.
So I will lay my trust in my people who have resided their confidence in me, to represent them and I will go as far as they want me to go. Locally, I would like to serve my municipality at the highest level, because I believe I have something special to offer. Wherever I need to be for that to happen, I would like to be there.
Natasha Williams: Moving on to another fulfilling dream of yours which is in the field of business. At the age of 26 you were a very budding entrepreneur, managing the family’s business ‘Foreigner’s Fast Foods and Meats,’ is that business still in operation, and do you manage to balance both business and politics?
Richard Vernon: At that time [age 26], I recently came back from University and I was into politics as well [G2K]. However, the ‘Foreigner’s’ brand is a family business and more so of my father’s dream than mine, (not that I haven’t bought into his dream, I have) and have given myself to the family business from a very tender age of 12. So the basic principles of business, I would’ve learnt them over the years.
By the time I returned from university I started my own meat shop…and was back to managing Foreigner’s Fast Food. Before my father passed though, he said that going into politics I won’t have time to do this type of business as it required hands on approach, so he retook operation of the restaurant and I focused on the meat shop. The fast food operation has been around for about 30 years and it primarily serves the poor people of Montego Bay. Regardless of what was going on in the economy, that was the only place [‘Montegonians’] were able to purchase three meals per day for the entire week on minimum wage.
Over time, the family ventures evolved as my father wanted to move from fast food to real estate…we now operate ‘Foreigner’s Estate’, but we still have a fast food branch at Hart Street [Montego Bay] that was affected by COVID. It will be back in operation soon.
For myself, I’m largely involved in a number of projects; one of which is my fishing business, ‘Fish Mongers,’ that is coming soon. This is where I will be mostly doing sea fish…soon the markets will be adequately supplied with “sea side” fish.
Natasha Williams: Now to wrap this interview, we would like to close with our Mckoy’s News ‘Fun Fact’ question. Name one fun activity that Richard Vernon enjoys doing, something that the public would not know but will now know.
Richard Vernon: As he ponders, his ‘aha’ moment finally struck and he replied enthusiastically, “Oh yes! I do arts, I was in the top three CAPE students in 2010 for Visual Arts in Jamaica.
So yes, I’m a lover of the arts and I support Barcelona Football Club and Lionel Messi is my favourite player;” he responded while laughing out loudly.
On that note, I also used to play football with my constituents at Jarrett Park and I played while at Rusea’s High School as well. I as played School Challenge Quiz during my time at high school.
The strong-willed and eloquent Councillor could not conclude this interview without some positive advice and words of encouragement.
“I believe that freedom and development comes through empowerment. To achieve true freedom and to achieve realistic development, people and institutions must be empowered to do so;” Vernon concluded.
Natasha Williams- Mckoy’s Senior Writer
Email: [email protected]