If the election of a new mayor and deputy mayor of Georgetown will fundamentally improve the stewardship of the capital city and propel it into the trajectory of modern governance we say let it be held this minute. If, however, the election is just another sickening twist in the cynical game played by the politicians in charge, then we say forget the elections.
It is clear to all thinking citizens of this garbage-strewn, unkempt city that the solution does not lie in engineering a minion into the top post and decorating him or her with the mayoral chain; the solution rests in fundamental local government reforms which have been held hostage by the PPP/C and the PNCR for eight years.
There is always room for change at the top. However, that change must entrench betterment and not result in a swift reversion to decay. In 1992 after the historic elections that restored the country’s democratic credentials there was no opposition at all to President Jagan’s decision to end the life of the Young council and to replace it with an Interim Management Committee (IMC). After all, local government elections had not been held since 1970 and the municipal administrations had become mirror images of the malaise that had afflicted central government and governance across aboard.
So with much goodwill, an IMC comprised of citizens from across the spectrum set about cleaning up the city. The state provided funds and the democratic dividend came into play via donations in cash and kind from the business community and others who were eager to see the city restored to a semblance of its halcyon days. Many of those on the IMC brought the skills necessary for running the city – the types of skills that are lacking on the council as currently composed – and results were produced. The IMC duly made way for the historic local government elections in 1994 which produced a stunning result for the former Prime Minister Hamilton Green who was fighting for his political life having been expelled from the PNC. His party, the GGG captured 12 seats, the traditional city leader, the PNC won 10 seats and the PPP/C, 8.
Despite the afterglow of the democratic renewal, lukewarm efforts to have a deal between the three groups for rotating the mayorship collapsed and this set in train the internecine, divisive politics that the country has been suffused with for the last six decades. Depending on the situation on the ground, various alliances sprung up between the three and the GGG splintered into several groups. The sum total of these events was that there was insidious infighting at the level of the council and an acrimonious relationship between central government and the council as the PPP/C was unable to control it. With poor performance, mismanagement and tension between the council and its top officers thrown into the mix, the fortunes of the city meandered between barely holding on to lurching from crisis to crisis.
A major part of the problem was that the city was unable to establish financial autonomy from central government. Its revenue base was limited and the government, not wanting to risk the possibility of an opposition group successfully running the capital city, refused a series of reasonable options to raise revenue even while pursuing some of them itself such as the lottery. The annual subvention to the city from central government is inadequate for a capital city that has sprawled enormously beyond its original limits and it could barely take care of its current needs much less capital expenditure. Its woes were deepened by antiquated and ironfisted legislation that gave the Ministry of Local Government enormous powers over the disciplining of officers of the municipality and the holding of investigations. So ridiculous the situation had become that at one point the Town Clerk had become the centre of power and openly defied the mayor.
Grafted on to these problems was the one that besets all of Guyana: inadequately trained and demotivated staff, poor management, indiscipline at all levels and fraud. How will any of this be reversed by permitting an election of a new mayor? Not even Bernard Madoff can pull this one off.
The government has already been down this road before, holding a series of aimless “consultations” two years ago on whether the city council should be replaced. It shelved the project but has apparently been inspired again. Each and every citizen wants change at City Hall. However, that doesn’t mean they will give their blessings to reckless machinations which are intended to sate the political ambitions of the main parties on the council and those who represent them. Residents of Georgetown want the fundamental change which has been promised by the maddeningly dormant local government task force, namely, a fair formula for the transfer of funds from the centre based on the population of the city and other factors along with the ability to raise its own revenue. The council also needs full control over its officers so there is no prospect of politics being played.
On top of that, there is a dire need for professional managers to run the city. The concept of the city council should give way to a concept of the Chief Executive Officer running the city like a business would do making sure that all of the basic services are provided and that its accounts remain in the black.
The elections manoeuvrings which have emanated from the Ministry of Local Government and have found sponsors at city hall will not produce the fundamental change that Georgetown requires.