GUYANA: Recalibration Required between Central Government and Georgetown

Stabroek News

By Stabroek News Editorial – June 10, 2022     

The PPP has never reconciled itself to the fact that Georgetown, the capital city, is under the control of the PNC now APNU with the AFC in tow. It is not a reality which is going to change in a hurry; the demographics are what they are and this is a universe where ethnicity largely dictates voting patterns. The southern wards of George-town are the APNU heartland, and while far more Indians and members of other groups live in the city than ever used to be the case, they will not outnumber the African population for the foreseeable future.

Twenty-three years in office saw the PPP/C starving the capital of funds so the rubbish mounted up on street corners and one Minister of Local Government infamously declared that he would be happy if there was a health crisis as a consequence because it would supply a justification for removing the City Council. It was the most open acknowledgement from the ruling party of what they were trying to achieve in Georgetown. Miraculously, however, there was no health crisis, and so the central government continued to operate in what the citizenry regarded as punishment mode.           

For the entire period during which the PPP/C was in power, the capital teetered on the brink of crisis, except for a brief period before the first local government elections in 1994 when they installed their own Interim Management Committee. Significantly, that committee advised the government that the municipality needed far more funds in order for it to be able to function effectively. Even though this emanated from their own appointees, the central government turned a deaf ear to the recommendation. In other words, it didn’t want an elected council to be able to operate efficiently.

Apart from funding, the central government had a variety of means at its disposal to obstruct the Mayor and City Council, some of which were of a legislative nature and others of which related to the appointment of municipal officials. The administrative head of the M&CC is the Town Clerk who could be hired, fired and disciplined, not by the Council, but by the Minister of Local Government, although now it is by the Local Government Commission. If it did not leave clearly incompetent Town Clerks in place in addition to other games, then as it did latterly, it installed the most unsuitable appointee it could find whose apparent mandate was to impede the Council.

It is not as if the M&CC itself was a model of competence and responsibility. It is just that even the most efficient-minded Council could not have functioned successfully against the tide of hostility flowing from the centre. As it was the Council’s inherent weaknesses were revealed when the coalition government came to office, and when it became the recipient of a more generous subvention than had been the case previously. With less interference from the centre it negotiated a disgraceful contract for parking meters which caused the most sustained apolitical protest from citizens and workers Georgetown has ever seen and which had to be abandoned.

After the present government acceded to office and President Irfaan Ali talked so effusively of uniting the country, the capital’s residents hoped for a change of direction and the emergence of a new era of co-operation between the central government and the municipality. While it is true that to everyone’s relief the former has moved to restore City Hall, it can only be remarked that it would have cost a lot less had it been done at an earlier stage of its two-and-a-half decades in office. That aside, we seem to be back to the status quo ante in terms of relations between the two sides.

The most recent contretemps came after the recent heavy rainfall resulted in flooding in some parts of Georgetown.  Prime Minister Mark Phillips did not mince his words and accused Mayor Ubraj Narine of a “nonchalant approach” in maintaining the drainage and infrastructure of the capital. In a statement he said he had made impromptu checks on Sunday evening which had revealed that the North Ruimveldt pump had been turned off, resulting in heavy flooding, and that the pumps at Church, Cowan and Lamaha streets as well as those at Liliendaal had been left unattended by operators.

He went on to say that this demonstrated a clear dereliction of duty on the part of the M&CC, and that he believed the “untold suffering thousands of residents are made to face yet again are as a direct result of the MCC’s laxity with managing the affairs of the city and the unconscionable, unabated political gamesmanship from the mayor, which needs to end now”.

The PPP/C, he said, “will no longer condone such irresponsible and reckless abandonment of duty, since they are counterproductive to the government’s transformative development plan for the nation’s capital”.

If this represents a veiled threat, it is not acceptable, and as for the Mayor playing political games, the Prime Minister has certainly got things in reverse. It is the central government which has the money and the power and which has been playing political games with the municipality for decades. There is no evidence that it has any transformative plan for George-town, other than to secure control of the municipality. If it can’t do that, then it will seek to undermine the M&CC as it has traditionally done.

The Mayor and City Council’s response to Mr Phillips criticisms was in the first instance to state that they had “no confidence” in City Engineer Colvern Venture on account of the fact that he had failed to carry out a series of tasks relating to serving the people of the capital. A letter of termination had been served on Mr Venture last year, they said, and they were still awaiting a response from the Local Government Commission on the matter in order that the “nonchalant approaches” the Prime Minister had cited could be resolved.

Leaving aside the matter of Mr Venture and the Local Government Commission (LGC) for the moment, the City Council has to take responsibility for its own failings. If for no other reason than it knows the central government is looking for faults and will be checking the pumps when it rains, there is an obligation for the Mayor and/or the relevant councillors to go out and inspect the pumps during periods of heavy rainfall. If they find what the Prime Minister found they should try and contact the City Engineer and place on record his deficiencies. With accumulating evidence of dereliction of duty the onus would then be on the LGC to do something about Mr Venture’s alleged failings.

The city councillors are directly answerable to the citizens of Georgetown, and whatever the difficulties with central government, as elected representatives they are still required to look after their constituents’ interests, particularly where flooding is concerned, and listen to their concerns with a view to helping them if they can and putting important issues on record if they can’t. It is no excuse to blame the City Engineer over pumps when they have done no checking themselves.

But this brings us to the question of the LGC and why there has been no response over Mr Venture’s status after such a long time. The Commission consists of three members appointed by government, three by the opposition and one by the trade unions and the other by the local democratic organs. It should be noted that the three government members are not renowned for their ability to compromise, two of them having had a historical confrontational relationship with the City Council, while the other stymied progress on the Bi-partisan Task Force on Local Government Reform for months. With the addition of the two supposedly non-political members, this powerful Commission leans to the government side. Could it be, one wonders that the LGC is being deliberately dilatory like the Minister before it? If not, it is hardly very efficient, and the Prime Minister would be justified in asking about its ‘nonchalant approach’.

And as for Minister of Local Government Nigel Dharamlall, the M&CC in their statement called for him to review the policies presented to him some time ago, including the building codes and littering bylaws which he was yet to analyse and amend. Does the Prime Minister not notice a certain ‘nonchalant approach’ in this instance too? In a letter to this newspaper Councillor Dexter Forte added the need to “engage on a national solid waste plan … and move away from dumpsites and landfills which negatively impact the environment.” This is all in addition to the problematic issue of waste disposal in general, which the government has shamelessly exploited.

The M&CC made reference to an ancient topic, and that is the failure of some government agencies to pay their rates and taxes, and the “illegal construction” in which some of them are engaged without consulting the municipal engineers.

One would have thought that the government would have wanted a capital which would present a respectable image to outsiders, now that the country is opening up as a consequence of oil. They cannot get that if they spend their time undermining the local authority, even if for political reasons they do not like them. No one is fooled by their clean-up campaigns to try and prove that only they can manage the city; after nearly three decades citizens know that game. Residents of the capital are not going to change their vote in Georgetown local elections, although the turn-out might be low. And the central government is living in cloud-cuckoo land if it thinks in this day and age it can get away with taking control of this country’s largest urban centre.

The government needs to recalibrate it policies, and find some way to work with, not against, the M&CC.

UPDATE

City to have more staff for drainage pumps

-following meeting between PM, Mayor

Prime Minister Mark Phillips (centre) and Mayor of Georgetown, Ubraj Narine (third from right) at the forum.

By

Following several days of acrimonious exchanges, Prime Minister Mark Phillips and Georgetown Mayor Ubraj Narine yesterday met and several areas were agreed for immediate assistance  including more staff for the city to man pumps and fuel aid.

A statement from the PM’s office reassured the Mayor and City Council (M&CC) that the Government is committed to working with it towards ensuring that the city’s drainage infrastructure is working at optimum levels at all time.

Phillips met with Narine; Deputy Mayor, Alfred Mentore; Town Clerk (ag), Candace Nelson and other technical staff from the M&CC at the Office of the Prime Minister.

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