By Mario Joseph
(This is the 11th instalment in a series on the state of local government)
Chairman of the Linden Town Council, Orrin Gordon believes that the spirit of democracy lies in local government elections.
“Local Government Elections is the genesis of the elections that should reflect what happens at the top and is long overdue. When slaves bought villages, it was decided that they would manage themselves, this was the birth of local government, this is the grounding of true democracy and what transcends the dynamics at the national level”, he told Stabroek News in an interview on the state of local government in the mining town.
He added, “In essence the government needs to do something about the situation and devolution of power, involves the people and forces an upward movement of governance. I believe it is critical to have the grass roots involvement of the people for development in a democracy. Interim should mean interim, not 11 years”. He added, “I was under the impression that the three years pattern after the subsequent 1992 elections would continue because people need constant renewal or continuity. People need persons in leadership positions who they can relate to and respect. Twenty years is too long and the excuses now are not plausible. Even if we just jump in and have the elections, let’s do that so that we can democratize the place”.
He declared the Linden Town Council to be in financial shambles which will see the operations of the council soon come to a standstill. This, he explained was due to an unapproved budget for 2014 because it was set to incur a $33M deficit which was as a result of the council being stripped of a significant revenue earning measure: the Mackenzie Bridge toll booth. Elaborating on the quagmire, he said that the authorization which isn’t even needed from central government to collect fees or tolls from bridges or other facilities maintained by the council is enshrined in the by-laws of Chapter 28:02. However,
this was taken away by central government after some miners and those in the “cabal of political control” complained. He further explained that the law to collect the tolls was never officially Gazetted by then Minister of Local Government, Kellawan Lall and never back dated when the issue was raised subsequently. This, he said, left the door open for the authorization to collect tolls for crossing the heavily laden and frequented Mackenzie Bridge to be rescinded, as it was in late 2013.
“The rescinding of the law has sent a financial shockwave through the Linden Municipality and further the people of Linden”, exclaimed Gordon. He continued, “This dilemma along with the increase in minimum wage is crippling us, with over 100 persons affected”. He added, “It would take $16M to $20M for us to catch up with that wage increase, happening at a time when we’re losing 30% to 40% of our overall revenue, derived from the toll booth”. He bemoaned, “This economic anxiety is not from our own doing and the spending for 2014, is illegal”. Asked if such action can lead to prosecution of himself or his council, he said, “You judge”.
The town of Linden is broken down into seven constituencies. The estimated population is said to be between 35,000 to 40,000 persons. The Region 10 town is bordered on the north by Bamia Creek, northwest by Dallawalla, south by the mined out area called Old England, west by South Phase 3 Wisroc and east by the extremities of Millie’s Hideout.
There are 22 government schools in the district, of which seven are nurseries, nine are primaries, one primary top (a school that caters for poor primary performers) and five secondary schools. There are two major hospitals in Wismar and Mackenzie, the two main sections of Linden. In support of these hospitals are six health centres/clinics divided equally between Wismar and Mackenzie. To facilitate recreation, there are eight major playgrounds of which only three have been developed. There is one town council-maintained cemetery in Christianburg which is in good shape after being cleaned up in late December when residents collaborated with the Town council which provided some materials while the community supplied labour. There are two municipal markets in Mackenzie and Wismar which are in need of repairs.
The current council is an IMC installed since November 28th, 2003 comprised of 17 councillors, down one from the full complement. The installation of the IMC was a resolution to a crisis of mismanagement at the council, decided on by then President Bharrat Jagdeo and leader of the opposition, Robert Corbin. The original composition of the IMC was maintained as it reflects the results of the 1994 local government elections of 15 PNC councillors and three PPP/C councillors. This IMC was the first of its kind and was installed as a necessity, much different from the imposition of IMCs at various other communities across the country. The former Mayor of Linden was Stanley Smith and Deputy Mayor was, Claudette Martin-Smart.
The IMC, described to be severely understaffed with 115 persons down from 150, operates with a Town Clerk, Janoller Bowen, who has a qualification in law and is the Chief Executive Officer of the municipality but operates without a Treasurer, the second most senior position within the organisation. The municipality conducts its operations through a series of departments whose names reflect their responsibilities. Such departments include Personnel, Rates Collection, Finance, Constabulary, Environmental Health, Buildings, Solid Waste Management, Markets, Cemeteries and Daycares. Each of the aforementioned departments is severely understaffed according to Chairman Gordon, a problem due to lack of financing. Within its arsenal of equipment to provide community services, the municipality has 2 compactor trucks, 2 tractors, 1 bobcat, 1 pick-up truck, 1 front end loader, 1 road roller, 3 buses, 1 motorcycle and 2 vector control foggers.
Returning to the challenges faced by the council, Gordon pointed out the by-laws that govern their operations and highlighted in the Local Government Act 12 of 1980, part 1 Section 9. This section states that Mayors, Deputy Mayors, Chairmen and Vice-chairmen of the local democratic organisations are supposed to be full time officers. Gordon explained that because this is not adhered to, persons cannot devote the required time and effort to function effectively in the capacity of community leadership. This, compounded by the lack of resources and the issues this newspaper has been raising at the NDC level for the past 10 weeks makes it ever so difficult to properly manage any local government body. He added, “No salaries also causes corruption”.
What the residents say
During a walk along the river view area on Coop Cresent Street, Mackenzie, after passing through the municipal market, it was noticed that the neatly carved landscape was consumed by garbage. After taking some photos a few taxi drivers standing around offered an explanation for the stain on their community which they said has been affecting them for several years. They said that the people are indisciplined and refuse to desist from littering regardless of measures put in place. Soon after they called a leader among them to speak to Stabroek News more formally to represent their views.
Robert Greene, 52, resident of Amelia’s Ward for 45 years with a wife and four children complained primarily about dumping of refuse and poor garbage collection services. Acknowledging immediately the council’s lack of resources, he said, there’s garbage in Amelia’s Ward that hasn’t been picked up for three weeks now. He continued, “There’s too much littering especially here at the market, just look around”. He added, “Two spots have been designated by the market vendors to dump refuse just outside the two ends of the market which is unsanitary and unhygienic”. He posited that big bins are needed to collect the refuse but according to the IMC chairman, bins were provided to the vendors who discard or fail to utilize them. Regarding the river view area, he said that the taxi drivers park there and therefore took on the responsibility of cleaning up the area and putting seven litter receptacles in place which were stolen or destroyed. “This is bad for tourism and stains the beauty of our river view which was designed to be a scenic attraction”.
Conveying the effects of another problem, Greene said the roads are bad and thus increase the cost to maintain his vehicle. He said the parts regularly replaced are the bushings, arms, steering ends and bent rims. He added, “Even when the government builds roads, they are done poorly and don’t last”. He continued, “Roads need to be built the way they used to be, like the highway roads which I believe is the benchmark”. The interview with this Lindener could not end without the mention of poor economic circumstances and lack of jobs in the area, which he shrugged off as if that’s life. He said that vending is the main source of employment in addition to a little farming of ground provisions, some fruits and vegetables.
Giving his opinion of the town council he said, “I understand that they have difficulties but they are not doing a good job”. He continued, “I’ve attended many meetings and we discuss protecting the environment but we still can’t tackle this garbage problem and to make matters worse, the landfill we use is not a landfill but a dumpsite that was never prepared to protect the environment”.
Asked what he thinks about local government elections (LGE) being withheld for 20 years he said, “This is overbearing and unacceptable. Elections is our constitutional right and we must have it now; we want our chosen people to manage our community”.
A self-employed electrician and shoe maker who plies his trade out of the Mackenzie Municipal Market, David Aprel, 45, told this newspaper that elections is just a bluff and he would not support the call for LGE because he doesn’t believe it confers democracy. He explained the reason for his convictions, stating that the ordinary man who wants to do what is right doesn’t have the opportunity to be elected at any level. He added that a list of persons who have no real care for the plight of the people are the main contestants and that money dictates who gets into power. “This is not freedom! This is not an election!” he asserted. He posited that any ordinary man able to stir up the people will be persecuted before he is able to achieve his goal.
He continued, that the only way a truly democratically elected leader could rise up is if he organizes secretly and builds support and resources before he comes to the forefront.
“I’ve been living here in Christianburg all my life. I have six children and a wife and I am living in the same conditions I knew as a little boy”. He continued, “No matter who you vote for, there is no change. This problem is not limited to Guyana but to the entire globe and it won’t go away unless we get some driving force to move the people out of this state of mind to stop accepting this”. Asked to zoom in on specific problems he faced living in Linden, he instead opted to say what he thinks needed to be done for the community. He said, “They need to fix all the roads and resurface the highway. They need to create industries to exploit our vast natural resources for the benefit of the ordinary man”. He added, “Metropolitan people come and take our resources when we could be empowered to do it ourselves instead of working for investors who come here”. He went on, “The government needs to educate the people and help us to organize in a co-operative spirit our capital to exploit our resources for the benefit of the Guyanese people”.
Dirk Alexander, 45, of Half Mile, Wismar, a shoe maker, said that the leaders are square pegs in a round hole and that they need to go. He continued, “The roads are bad and all the drivers complain, with some refusing to go to certain places leaving people to walk. The drains are not cleaned and bushes fill up everywhere. People dump garbage on the main street and we suffer from an unreliable garbage pick-up schedule”. He added, “Mosquitoes terrorise the people and certain lands experience flooding”. “The Dallawalla Katapuli bridge is constant need of repairs when it should be replaced”, he said. In the midst of the interview he asked if the reporter could detect the putrid odour emanating from outside the stall, a few foot steps away. He then took this reporter to see a dump site where market vendors dump their refuse and animals gather. He said that the dump was cleared just about an hour earlier and it had already returned to square one. Asked of his opinion of the work of the council and LGE, he said, “They’re not doing anything and stated that he does not vote because he feels the same way as Aprel does”.
A construction entrepreneur said that the kickback God reigns supreme in Linden just as much as he does in Georgetown. He explained that this is the reason for substandard work because short materials are bought and sloppy work is done to maintain the profit margin of the contractors. He added, “People blame the contractors when it is the officials’ fault”. He continued, the good contractors who refuse to pay end up in trouble after they would have started the work with continued payments being withheld or delayed to the point when the contractor is unable to finish the work within the time frame, which results in him losing the contract and having to repay the monies already collected”. He said that this issue was raised along official lines and taken straight up to the PNCR party leader, David Granger but nothing happened. “The infrastructure work Lindeners receive will continue to be substandard as long as these corrupt people are allowed to continue in their practices”.
Moving on to local government issues, he said that there is a major garbage problem affecting the area, bad roads and flooding in low-lying areas because of poorly maintained drains. “The town council is not doing a good job and they need to go”. Stating that the officials in charge have been in office for far too long, he pledged his support to vote for LGE, which he admitted to knowing little about. “I feel bad that we ain get de elections and I would welcome a new system where we can vote in and vote out officials based on their performance”. “We need change in both the town council and the regional council and we need it now”.
A taxi driver and gold miner from Amelia’s Ward plying his trade in the Christianburg area said that he has been a Lindener all his life and that life has gotten progressively worse. The 39 year old said that the roads are bad, bushes fill up the road sides and garbage is everywhere. He added that enough is not being done to curb the littering problem and more so garbage disposal in general. He said that Cevons waste management service has alleviated the problem in some areas but pointed out that some areas have neither the municipal service nor Cevons to help them. Citing the performance of the town council as poor, the man said that they’re just not doing a good enough job. Lending his comments on LGE, he said, “I feel if we had the election then things would be much better today. I believe we need the election because we need to empower the people; we need persons who would represent us properly”.