Co-Chairman Clinton Collymore has moved to end the local government reform task force discussions, drawing severe criticism from the parliamentary opposition parties who accused him of trying to delay the completion of key reforms before the holding of long-delayed local elections.
Opposition leader Robert Corbin yesterday refused to recognize Collymore’s autho-rity to end the discussions, saying that it appeared as if the PPP/C administration is attempting to arbitrarily terminate the reform process. He also said the PPP/C Co-Chair acted on instructions -a charge subsequently refuted by Collymore, who explained that he made the decision to end the discussions after the members of the task force were split on the agenda for their work. “…Since I was unable to continue the discussion, I terminated the discussions on my own,” he said yesterday. “No one instructed me to do so.”
Last October, Collymore had submitted a memorandum to the President, recommending that the task force’s remaining work be taken up by Cabinet because of a deadlock, a claim denied by the opposition. The task force was subsequently reconstituted.
Local government elections have been due since 1997. The Joint Task Force on Local Government Reform was set up in 2001 by agreement between President Bharrat Jagdeo and then opposition leader Desmond Hoyte. The task force, made up of representatives of the majority PPP/C and the main opposition PNCR, had initially been given a one-year mandate for the completion of local government reforms but it has been reconstituted at least twice since then to complete the process.
Members of the joint parliamentary opposition-PNCR, AFC and GAP-ROAR-yesterday presented a unified front to resist the move, stressing the need for meaningful reforms of the local government system before the holding of polls. The parliamentary opposition parties met yesterday on the development and discussions were also held to update the donor community. Corbin subsequently told Stabroek News that the parties did not consider Collymore’s actions “official” as he had moved unilaterally.
“He is first a functionary of a process set up by the Leader of the Opposition and the President, so he can’t inform us of any change of the agreement,” he said. Both the AFC and GAP-ROAR also expressed grave concern about the situation, while saying that Collymore should be removed if he cannot function in a proper manner.
Earlier, Corbin told a news conference at the PNCR’s Congress Place Headquarters that at a meeting of the task force on Tuesday, Collymore announced the end of the task force’s meetings, in keeping with instructions he had received. According to him, the announcement was made without any notice or discussion with the PNCR Co-Chair Allan Munroe.
Munroe said the meeting was conducted in an atmosphere of cordiality, describing it as being the “best” engagement until the “bombshell” announcement. He said the PPP/C is afraid of looking at the draft of the Local Government Commission Bill because it would see the removal of certain powers vested in the subject minister and placed in the Commission. “If our worked was not stopped, our next two meetings would have been spent attacking one of the two bills [but] they are trying to get away from that,” he said.
Meanwhile, Collymore submitted a memorandum in the name of the task force to Jagdeo and Corbin, for decision on areas of disagreement. These include a section in the draft Local Authorities (Election) Amendment Bill and the issue of the establishment of Village and Community Councils. Munroe had not seen the document, dated April 6, 2009, before it was submitted.
Corbin, however, said none of the disagreements were related to any of the current issues on the task force’s agenda.
The PNCR had recently expressed concern that the government intended to move ahead to the polls without implementing reforms essential for the functioning of the local government system. Corbin further noted that it was for the completion and implementation of the reforms that the polls have been postponed and he accused the PPP/C of attempting to subvert the local government reform that the parties have spent a lot of time on.
Emphasizing that it was made clear that Collymore was acting on instruction, Corbin said it could only be assumed that instructions were given by President Jagdeo. He added that it was agreed the task force should not be held up if it reached gridlock, noting that those issues on which it could not arrive at an agreement on would be documented and submitted for discussions at another level. However, he reiterated that if the task force worked studiously there was no doubt of it completing its work. Corbin would not say what the party would do if the bills are taken to the parliament, but reiterated that the parliamentary parties have committed to seeing the local government polls held under a reformed system. He added that the work of the task force would also serve to avoid any subsequent controversies when the legislation was presented to parliament and to ensure the implementation of the recommendations. “This abrupt amendment or closure of the task force without even a discussion or an explanation is a clear indication the government is not committed to ensuring these reforms are complete,” he said.
In a statement issued last evening, Collymore, however, explained that the task force’s agenda included the Fiscal Transfers Bill 2009, the Local Government (Amendment) Bill 2009 and the Local Government Commission Bill 2009. He said final adjustments were made to the Fiscal Transfers Bill, with inputs from Munroe and PPP/C representative Navin Chanderpal.
According to Collymore, when the task force reached the point in the agenda to discuss the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, the PNCR members insisted on looking at the Local Government Commission Bill instead. He said the issue became “a major and fundamental disagreement” as the PPP/C members noted that the former law had higher priority than the latter. “…There was no way we could have proceed with the meeting,” he explained, “At that point I announced that for all intents and purposes, discussions at the task force level had come to an end and that pending any further notification from me no meetings of the task force would take place.”
Collymore admitted that the PNCR members were surprised and indicated that they were not in favour of the decision. He, however, insisted that it was his decision in view of the fact that the discussion had come to an end on the bills that they had agreed to discuss. “Since there was no agreement on which of the two remaining Bills to discuss, there was no sense in proceeding with further meetings,” he said. He also informed that he would notify both President Jagdeo and Corbin in writing of the cessation of the meetings, the reasons for his decision and the areas of disagreement.
Collymore denied Corbin’s claim that he was instructed to terminate the meetings, saying it was far from the truth and in no way represented the facts of the matter. “I terminated the meeting on my own volition,” he added, noting that according to the agreement between the parties no meeting of the task force could be held without a properly constituted quorum, which includes both Co-chairs and at least a member from each side.
Meanwhile, in a joint statement the AFC and GAP-ROAR also expressed concern about Collymore’s actions, saying it has proven “harmful” to the local government reform process. The parties opined that Collymore lacks the necessary acumen and understanding of how the Task Force mechanism was designed and expected to function and has, therefore, to be controlled by his party. “…Unless he is made to function in a proper manner, he should be removed,” the two parties declared.
They noted that no one Co-Chair or even the President or the Opposition leader has the authority to unilaterally suspend the meetings of the task force unless this is the consensus view of all. “There is unfinished business awaiting deliberations and conclusions and the AFC and GAP-ROAR expect therefore that the important work of producing a raft of meaningful reforms will be continued so that local government elections can be held under a system that will usher in a new dispensation of peace, harmony, and development in our communities,” they added.
GECOM Chairman Dr Steve Surujbally said last month that the commission projects that it would be prepared to run off polls by November 30, though he was optimistic that an earlier date could be possible. However, he noted that GECOM’s preparations rest on the completion of deliberations by the Task Force as it would have to implement the agreements.
For his part, President Jagdeo has said he hopes for a bilateral agreement between government and the opposition to conclude the framework for the holding of elections. Alternatively, if an agreement can’t be reached at a bilateral level, he said, the parties would have to go to parliament and have the debates take place there.