The latest municipal drama is a piece of theatre with which Georgetown residents are only too familiar. The storyline is hackneyed: first the city runs out of money; then a crisis develops; and in the last act, lo and behold, the government – or on this occasion, the President – zooms in with the wherewithal to save the capital’s beleaguered citizenry.
Accompanying these performances are the interminable exchanges about money and the management of the city. The Mayor says that the revenue base of Georgetown is insufficient and that the Ministry of Local Government has blocked every proposal he has ever put forward to expand it. On the other side, more than one Minister of Local Government has said that the funds at the council’s disposal are adequate, and it is just a matter of managing the municipality more efficiently and conscientiously collecting the rates and taxes on properties.
There is certainly no doubt that the financial status of the council would improve substantially should the legion of defaulters pay the backlog of what they owe on their rates. There are some prominent businesses, for example, which are millions in arrears. It is true that the bureaucratic infrastructure which kept the system ticking over so smoothly in the old days atrophied a long time ago, but surely it is not beyond the resources of the municipality to hire a marshal or two. In addition, the process for recovering the rates is a relatively simple and straightforward one, and should not involve miring the council in the notoriously dilatory court system. Proceedings by way of distraint and the remedy of parate execution are both remarkably quick, so exactly why the Town Clerk – whose responsibility it is to act in such matters in the name of the council – has been so reluctant in the past to move against those who have not paid rates and taxes for years, is a total mystery.
Leaving that specific issue aside, it has to be said that under the present legislative arrangements it is impossible to run Georgetown efficiently. Many citizens do not realize that the Mayor and his councillors do not really have the power to manage the capital; the real power lies with the Ministry of Local Government. The men and women assembled around the horseshoe table cannot implement any schemes for raising money without the imprimatur of the ministry, and have little control over the municipal bureaucrats who are responsible for the administration of the city. Where senior personnel are concerned, the Minister of Local Government by default is the ultimate authority because the Local Government Service Commission which in theory should be dealing with such matters, has never been set up. If the government, therefore, decides not to give the council money and not to discipline errant senior officials, there is precious little the Mayor and councillors can do about it.
Under these circumstances even the most capable city council (which this one is certainly not) could not run the municipality with any degree of competency; the system in and of itself is simply dysfunctional. As it is, therefore, the government has bypassed the M&CC whenever it has suited it to do so, such as in the period leading up to Cricket World Cup when it dealt directly with the top officers of City Hall, ignoring the council completely. As for personnel matters, the ministry already demonstrated its powers when it dismissed the city engineer.
The emasculation of local government bodies like the Georgetown M&CC did not begin after 1992; it dates back to the days of Mr Burnham and the Municipal and District Councils Act. However, during the period when there was a PNC government in office and a PNC council in Georgetown, the strains were less in evidence because the central administration could afford to allow the Mayor latitude to function like an executive officer chairing a board. The mayors, of course, were often PNC members of some seniority, and in most instances city officials recognized that there was no hiatus between the ruling party and the mayor.
The problem began with advent of the PPP/C in government, because it did not have a majority on the council. With its penchant for controlling every organization and agency in the country, as indicated already, it used its powers inherent in the law when it regarded that as necessary. There have nevertheless been periods when it has worked in alliance with the Mayor, although that is not the case currently.
During the long drawn-out negotiations on the committee for local government reform – a necessary preliminary step to elections – the ruling party for a long time could not come to an agreement with the PNCR about (among other things) the mechanisms for the transfer of funds from central government to local government bodies. It was announced earlier this year that agreement had now been reached, although the details of that accord have not been placed in the public domain. What one hopes, however, is that the new law will be infinitely more rational than the one which currently obtains, and will give genuine financial and administrative autonomy to town councils – more especially the Georgetown City Council – so they can be held directly responsible for the management of their areas.
In the meantime, however, the government is in a position to squeeze the M&CC whenever it sees fit. The background to the most recent act in the ongoing drama might possibly be suggested by letters from some of the usual ‘correspondents’ in the Chronicle calling for the replacement of the city council with an Interim Management Committee. The thinking behind the campaign, if such it is, is not too hard to divine. Presumably the idea is that in the case of any financial ‘crises’ leading to garbage pile-ups, for example, a groundswell of opinion in favour of an IMC could be generated. The government has the power to install such a body under certain circumstances, as was demonstrated in the case of Linden, when the PNCR co-operated with it in the removal of the town council there.
The members of an IMC would, one supposes, be selected by the central government and would certainly be provided with the funds to make an impact on conditions in the capital. The success of such a committee, it would presumably be hoped, might have an effect on the political preferences of the Georgetown voters in the local government elections.
If indeed that is the theory behind the present calls for the removal of the council, then it is almost certainly wishful thinking. Georgetowners recognize political games when they see them, and are simply tired of their city being used as a political football. Clearing the garbage, maintaining the drainage system and weeding the parapets are not political operations, and those who hold responsibility for such exercises do not require an ideological commitment of any kind in order to discharge their functions effectively. Furthermore, we already had a well-funded IMC before the last local government elections many moons ago, whose clean-up efforts, while commendable, did not result in the governing party securing control of the M&CC when the elections were eventually held.
For all of that the administration is quite right in believing that the Mayor and councillors need to be removed. However, the government is not the one to do it; at this point that should be the sole prerogative of the electorate of Georgetown.