Local Government – Only a beginning – Stabroek News editorial

Local Government – Only a beginning

Stabroek News – Editorial – March 21, 2016

GECOM LOGOIt is only a beginning. A stifling, tattered curtain has now been firmly drawn to reveal an expansive stage, even if not magnificent, but one upon which the citizens of the country can truly begin to be their own bosses and hold those who run their councils accountable. The governing APNU+AFC coalition has fulfilled its promise to the public to hold these local government polls as soon as was practicable following last year’s general elections. By keeping its covenant with the people, it has also healed a breach of faith with the public, largely the doing of the former PPP/C which had had  ample opportunity to stage these polls since 1997 most notably and recently under the tenure of former President Ramotar.

The governing coalition now has an important obligation and golden opportunity to deepen its commitment to local government. First it must ensure the full activation and functioning of the ground-breaking local government reforms that had been trapped in years of political gridlock. These laws in their conceptualising and development hold out great promise for a just, thriving and accountable local government system. One of these laws, the Fiscal Transfers Act will provide the basis for subventions from the state to the local government system. This will put the councils on a more secure footing to discharge their obligations to those who live in the community. The Local Government Commission Act paves the way for the Commission to hire and fire local government officers. Considering the politicising of appointments across the board it will be a major departure from what exists even though the government will nominate the majority of the members of the commission. One expects that the government will nominate persons with knowledge and experience in these matters rather than politicos. The Local Government (Amendment) Act also wrests intrusive powers from the Local Government Ministry, now the Ministry of Communities, and transfers these to the councils and their officers.

Since some of these laws will be utilized for the first time they require close examination for legislative tweaking and updating. The Act which brought into force the hybrid voting system that was used at Friday’s elections is a case in point. Those elected by the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) constituency system must be subject to recall on various grounds. If the ticket which supports a candidate has good grounds to disavow the candidate there should be a clear pathway to have this candidate ejected and replaced. This matter has already been raised in connection with the APNU+AFC candidate Winston Harding. The FPTP candidates should also be subject to a recall if a sufficient number of persons in their constituency are of the view that they are derelict in the discharge of their responsibilities. All sound FPTP legislation requires such provisions and this is an area that the Ministry of Communities should look at immediately.

Second, the government must invest as much time and resources as it did in its local government campaigning to acquaint all those on the councils and the citizens of the communities about their responsibilities. If there was ever a need for seminars it is now. All of the councillors on the municipal councils and neighbourhood democratic councils require intensive familiarising with the provisions of the municipal and local government laws. They need to understand how the Fiscal Transfers Act will determine how much money will be allocated to each council. The councillors also need extensive schooling on accountability for the monies that they will be superintending, transparency in the awarding of contracts and the importance of zero tolerance on corruption.

Those councillors who have won seats on councils by the FPTP system should also be put on notice that they now are directly accountable to their constituents. Each of those councillors should be required to have an open day on the premises of the council where members of the public are invited to air their grievances. The councils must as far as possible have open meetings where members of the public can sit in and follow the proceedings.

Friday’s election has presented a beachhead which has to be built on to realise the promise of vibrant and effective local government.

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