Minority leader Watson Duke has threatened legal action against the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) and the Office of the Presiding Officer for convening a special sitting to elect a new chief secretary after Kelvin Charles' controversial resignation on April 30.
Recently-appointed Assistant Secretary in the Division of Health, Wellness and Family Development Ancil Dennis was elected as the new chief secretary at Wednesday's special sitting at the Assembly Legislature in Scarborough.
Arguing the existing THA Act does not address the convening of a special sitting to replace a chief secretary who has resigned, an upset Duke led a walkout from the Assembly Legislature prior to Dennis being sworn in.
Duke said the Minority has retained the services of a senior counsel and an instructing attorney to look into the matter.
"I shall meet with them tomorrow and once I meet with them, we would then proceed along a legal course," he told reporters after the brief sitting.
Duke claimed Dennis' appointment is illegal and, as such, the Minority bench does not support it.
"We do not and I want to say that categorically, the Minority Council, we do not recognise Ancil Dennis as the chief secretary. And we want to say anything he does is null and void and of no effect. It is illegal."
Duke added: "We are not just talking this but in a few days from now, when councillors are satisfied, they would approach the High Court to seek not just an injunction but to reverse this, to nullify this election."
Duke wrote to the THA's presiding officer Vanessa Cutting-Thomas hours before the sitting, challenging its legality.
"The Standing Orders do not provide any clear mandate giving you the authority to elect a new chief secretary under the circumstances that currently prevail in the Tobago House of Assembly," he wrote.
He also asked, among other things, that Cutting-Thomas provide the official legal advice received "that gives you the confidence in your authority to facilitate the election of a new chief secretary given the current circumstances."
The Minority Leader again raised the issue of the sitting's legality with Cutting-Thomas when the vote was being taken in the House.
"I am hereby speaking clarity before I exercise my right as the Minority Leader as to the chapter and verse within the standing orders that gives us the right to elect a chief secretary when one has resigned," he said in the Assembly Legislature.
Cutting-Thomas, taking a minute to peruse documents, replied, "In accordance with paragraph 11 part one of the THA Act and Standing Order 4 (2), "All members are invited to submit nominations for the position of chief secretary."
Speaking outside the Assembly Legislature, Duke claimed Cutting-Thomas "deliberately avoided the question" and he was not satisfied with her response.
"We have no information that the presiding officer acted on legal knowledge and we have read the Standing Orders that guides the proceedings over and over.
"We have read the Tobago House of Assembly Act and there is nothing legal in it that allows for a chief secretary to be elected after one has resigned."
Duke said according to the THA Act, a chief secretary can only be elected after THA election or if there is a no-confidence motion in the office holder.
"It is silent (on electing a chief secretary after one has resigned). And, if it is silent you cannot make it up as you go along."
Duke said he is happy the PNM has found "new blood" in electing Dennis, the Buccoo/Mt Pleasant representative, as chief secretary.
"And not just new, but young blood. We have always alluded to the fact that leadership, especially for tomorrow and the future, lies on the backs of young people."
However, he said the Minority would not support Dennis in his new role.
"As to the rightness or wrongness and to congratulate him is something we cannot do.
"We are not trying to derail the desire of Tobago to be led by a chief secretary. We want Tobago to have a chief secretary but what we are most concerned about is the legality of this."
Dennis: No law was flouted
When told of Duke's decision to initiate legal action against the THA, Dennis said the Minority Leader should be "astutely ignored."
He said: "The THA Act is clear on if a chief secretary resigns.... section eight of the THA Act outlines the process for the election of a chief secretary. Section 35 explains circumstances under which a chief secretary can demit office.
"And the Standing Orders gives the presiding officer the necessary powers to call a sitting for the purpose of the election of a chief secretary."
Dennis was adamant no law was flouted.
"No Standing Order was breached as far as I am concerned and I am saying those statements should be ignored."
Commenting on the scenario, political analyst Dr Winford James said Duke's arguments may have some merit.
He noted the presiding officer cited excerpts from the THA Act 40 of 1996 and a clause from the Standing Orders to justify her reason for allowing the vote to be exercised.
"I haven't seen the Standing Orders but there is nothing that I have read in the act that authorises her to hold a sitting as she did," he said.
James said the act did not contemplate a chief secretary would resign while in office.
He also said the administering of the oath of office to Dennis should have been done by President Paula Mae Weeks and not Cutting-Thomas.
"These are things that I will have to revisit. But Mr Duke may have to seek his legal opinions and such legal opinions should be published."