GUYANA: Governing Georgetown – Editorial By Stabroek News

Governing Georgetown

City of Georgetown North-western section

The capital city has always represented a challenge for a PPP government. With its predilection for controlling every conceivable political space, the fact that the most important urban region in the country does not fall directly under its sway has been a source of considerable vexation for it. The southern wards of Georgetown are the PNC’s traditional heartland, and its best efforts notwithstanding, Freedom House has never made much of an inroad into changing voting patterns there. Its response has been, therefore, to prevent the City Council from functioning, and then to swoop in occasionally and perform a task which falls under the municipality’s remit in order to demonstrate that only the government can run the capital effectively.         

Alternatively, it will once in a while advance funding, usually in the form of taxes which it owes the city, or which represent an advance payment on these, in order to pay the garbage companies. This would be with a view to proving that the Council was not spending the rates and taxes it collected responsibly.

After 23 years of this, plus no local government elections for more than twenty years during its last period in office, one might have thought that now it is back in government with considerable funds at its disposal, the PPP/C would have rethought its approach of how to relate to Georgetown. For a fleeting moment this seemed possible shortly after President Irfaan Ali became President when he indicated that they would have to find a way to work with the City Council. But that was soon forgotten and we are now back to the traditional ways of all previous PPP/C governments.

First it was a project to improve the drainage of South Georgetown, when a bevy of no less than seven ministers presented themselves at a meeting of residents to inform them about the plans. This was in the wake of serious flooding of the area when one or another minister had inspected the kokers and had blamed the Council for dereliction of one kind or another. The Mayor in turn had blamed the City Engineer who had denied culpability.

But while the residents present at the meeting were pleased about government plans in relation to the flooding problem, the political dimension to what was being proposed was not lost on them. A particularly articulate member of the audience told the assembled ministers:

“We are demanding that the government treat the City Council with the respect that it deserves. That it bestow upon them the deserved subvention so that they can do the work they were elected to do… We have to stop playing politics because it is getting us nowhere, it is ripping the country apart.”

The government hasn’t listened. Last week the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development announced it would be rehabilitating the city markets of Kitty, Albouystown, La Penitence, Stabroek and Bourda. The DPI reported Minister Nigel Dharamlall as indicating that the decision was made owing to the fact that the Mayor and City Council had failed in its mandate of rehabilitating the markets. He described many locations which came under the purview of the City Council as being similarly affected, with structural defects, lack of proper management and inadequate security.

“The unfortunate thing about all of this,” the Minister was quoted as saying “is that every time government has to do the heavy lifting, and City Hall earns over $2 billion per year. Where is it going?” As he well knows the municipality has never had anything like sufficient funds to discharge its duties. Apart from anything else there are many citizens who have not paid their rates and taxes for years, including, to their great discredit, a substantial number in the commercial sector. For a long time, as the late Mr Gunn Rockcliffe never tired of explaining, it was difficult to recover taxes via the route of parate execution, owing to a change in the law, but even if that had not been the case, the M&CC still would not have been in any position financially to perform as necessary.

The situation has not been helped by the fact that the government has resisted every attempt on the part of the Council to increase their sources of income, in particular, a revaluation of properties for the purposes of property taxes. The rate was increased by ten per cent, but given all the new building and rebuilding in Georgetown there needs to be a total reassessment exercise. The problem is that this can only be undertaken by the Ministry of Finance, and so far that ministry has failed to oblige.

What is interesting about this latest Georgetown project on the part of the government is that Minister Dharamlall has been rather candid about the reasoning behind it. He stated in a recording released by DPI, “The investment the citizens of Georgetown need to make is to invest in a new council. I think that is the only way we will be able to alleviate the problems in Georgetown”. He was also reported as going on to say that the citizens of the capital should examine the areas which needed to be addressed, and elect a council which would represent their interests. With local government elections looming on the horizon this is clearly intended as an incentive for residents to change their choices for the purposes of the ballot box. Whether this latest attempt will prove any more successful than previous efforts is questionable, but what it does illustrate is the fact that in the government’s view improving the condition of the capital is dependent on a change in its political orientation.

While the government has been bypassing all local councils, particularly if they are in the control of the opposition, Georgetown provides the most blatant example of the approach. It is evidence, if any were needed, that the ruling party is not wedded to the notion of devolution, and is opposed to councils of all varieties ‒ village, NDC or Regional ‒ having the power to exercise any kind of autonomy. In other words it is not really interested in genuine local government.

The misfortune of Georgetown, however, goes beyond the obvious politicking. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the M&CC, independent of its financial woes is incompetent. Nothing illustrates that better than the period when it operated under the coalition government, which was not hostile and gave it room to make decisions. Left to its own devices it got itself involved in the infamous parking meter scheme. It is the only time in recent memory when the citizens of Georgetown came out in numbers to demonstrate on an apolitical basis over a clearly inequitable contract. Questions are still being raised in very recent times about its awarding of contracts. In addition, the Council has performed poorly in other respects.

While it may lack funds, its financial management of what it does oversee has been very much open to question in the past. Under the previous PPP/C administration it did not issue financial statements as required by law for years, and while these were prepared from 2012 to the change of government, they did not contain the kind of information which would have allowed the auditors to express an opinion. In 2019 various discrepancies were discovered, and following a special audit in 2021, similar issues were revealed.

Where the performance of M&CC officials is concerned, however, including the Treasurer and Town Clerk, there is an intersection with politics. Control of all the most senior administrative officers in the Council lies with the Local Government Commission. While it was intended, at least by the PNCR, that that body should be independent of government control, as it is currently constituted it is not. There are three members from each side of the political divide which sit on it, but the other members lean to government. If the central administration wanted, therefore, in circumstances where there were financial irregularities it could require an account from the Treasurer about expenditure, and similarly the Town Clerk, whom it appointed. Although the M&CC has complained about the performance of the City Engineer and asked for him to be removed (as said earlier he has challenged the complaints), the Commission has held no investigation into his performance. In the meantime, various government ministers tour the kokers and complain about the City Council’s handling of drainage infrastructure.

It should be added that last year the Mayor and Councillors complained that the Commission hired and fired people without ever informing the Council. Most of the decisions made by the Council, it was said, were totally disregarded by the Commission.

This is no way to run a capital which is supposed to attract tourists and investors. How can it ever be a showpiece if the city and central authorities are always at loggerheads and the latter is always trying to undermine the former? And how can it be a showpiece if it is not administered efficiently. The bi-partisan Task Force on Local Government spent a long time agreeing on reforms, but perhaps where Georgetown is concerned they need to be looked at again.

An editorial in this newspaper early last year proposed the appointment of a manager, leaving the City Council to deal with policy. Certainly their record on contracts is not good. It would, of course, require a legislative change. But even if that were agreed, there would still be the problem of the indirect control exercised by the Local Government Commission, since there would be no point in having a manager who could be undermined by officials who would not be answerable to him or her. And then too the city would have to be guaranteed a certain level of funding in order for it to function optimally.

In this new era it cannot make sense for the capital to continue in this way. There has to be some agreement between the government and opposition about the best way to administer it. If the government finds following the local government elections this year that it still does not control the Council even if it gains a few seats, what then is it proposing to do? Continue as it has in the past by making Georgetown pay for its voting habits?

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Comments

  • WIC  On 04/11/2023 at 1:41 pm

    A very interesting article in which however, the writer overlooks the politics involved.

    I recall in 1976 senior employees of the Guyana govt. were summoned to a meeting chaired by the late Elwin McDavid(who kept Elvin’s little green book for notes). He explained the govt. was having financial difficulties and it was necessary to “maintain political control of the City and surrounding areas”.

    The result was that the attendees, had to hold meetings at nights arranged through community cadres and explain the party line to those attending same. Of course, the PNC retained political control of Georgetown.

    Didn’t the City have a senior PNCy member as mayor for many years? so pleased don’t blame the PPP for any neglect. Fortunately, oil is coming ashore off the city coasts and is fueling improvement from spin off economic activities. However, the distribution of income is inequitable.

    Efficiently run cities across the world, have a City Manager who reports to the mayor and council. It’s nonsense to have a City Engineer(CE) who is independent, perhaps incompetent and is not subordinate to the City Manager(CM) and can just shrug off responsibility for his/her failings. Should the CM not function efficiently, he/she would be fired by council; should the CE not be efficient, then he/she should be fired by the CM.

    In advanced countries, the municipality would place a lien on property where taxes are in arrears and that would get the attention of owners when put up for sale for non-payment of taxes. For the Guyana govt. to provide money to the City money while it fails to collect outstanding taxes is bad business and such freebies shouldn’t be expected nor tolerated.

    All must pay their fair share for services and improvements.

  • derrycksgriffith  On 04/11/2023 at 5:40 pm

    ATTENTION.

    In relation to the governance of the City Of Georgetown, by The City Council elected authority. Here are some of my observations.

    To properly manage any city or township, those individuals must be allowed the political and financial autonomy to so.
    In order to ensure that proper management, transparency, and accountability is in place.
    The provision and collection of taxes from property owners are adequate, relevant, legal, and regulated by this authority.
    And is statutorily regulated according to the local authority it represents also.
    And finally, for any city to operate and thrive, it must be managed like a business, in order for it to be well maintained.

    Derryck Griffith.

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