The Local Government Commission: How local?

I argued two weeks ago that the optimal operation of local democracy in our situation will depend very much upon how it is actually structured, i.e. how power within the system is dispersed. To elaborate, it would be best if the system contains a high level of autonomy, certain and independent financing and creative ways to facilitate ethnic and gender balance. Furthermore, where, in the interest of efficiency or coordination, superior bodies at the central and regional levels are necessary, they should be elected and/or appointed as directly as possible by the local bodies themselves. Those wanting to remove or subvert local power must have to go through hoops to achieve their aim! Thus, all of the elements must be properly entrenched, if necessary by way of a super parliamentary majority.

The 1980 Constitution established a National Congress of Local Democratic Organs (NCLDO), which with the National Assembly formed the Supreme Congress of the People (SCP). The NCLDO consisted of twenty elected councilors – two from each region – to represent the interest of and have certain oversight functions over local government in Guyana. The 2001 constitutional reformers repealed both the NCLDO and the SCP and appear to have replaced the former with a Local Government Commission.

The Local Government Commission Bill 2012 sought to establish the Local Government Commission with powers to deal with the staffing of local government organs and disputes between local authorities. But the Bill also gave the commission other important powers, namely to monitor and review the performance and implementation of the policies of all local government organs, including taxation and protection of the environment; to monitor, evaluate and make recommendations on policies, procedures and practices of all local government organs in order to promote effective local governance; to investigate any matter under its purview and propose remedial action to the minister whenever or wherever necessary; to monitor and review all existing and proposed legislation, policies and measures relating to local government organs and report on the need for any amendments to the minister; to examine and propose ways of enhancing the; capacity of local government organs, and to hear appeals instituted by employees dismissed by any local government organ.

future notesThe Bill recommended that the Local Government Commission consist of six members: three to be appointed solely by the president, two after consultation with the leader of the opposition and one by the minister after consultation with local democratic organs. The Select Committee that examined the Bill increased the commission’s membership to seven: three to be appointed by the president, three on the advice of the leader of the opposition after consultation with other parliamentary parties and one upon the nomination by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Appointments from among persons submitted by trade unions operating within the local government system. During the debate on the Select Committee Report, the membership was increased to eight on the insistence of the PPP/C: four appointed by the president and four by the leader of the opposition.

Since in all reasonableness the AFC will have to be given the opportunity to choose one of the opposition representatives, in my view the new arrangement gives it a slight advantage in that on any hotly disputed issue its representative can significantly affect the outcome by simply remaining neutral! In our context, the problem of passing important powers to a body built for deadlock is well recognized and there are a few other issues about which I am uncertain; for example, who, if anyone, sets the policy for the commission? But much more important for a body that is supposed to give power to local people is the way it is structured.

Section 4 of the Bill, which was unaltered in the Select Committee Report, states that “An elected member of a local Government organ cannot be a councilor and a member of the Commission at the same time.” Why not? If the intention is to give more power to the communities, the commission could have been structured somewhat like the NCLDO was to allow equitable regional representation and thereby move power from the centre both in terms of how the commission is appointed and its membership? As it is, the minister may have lost some authority to the commission but the authority itself remains at the behest of the central government and opposition!

New Zealand has one of the oldest Local Government Commissions in the world.  Established in 1947, it has over the years amassed enormous authority, but in general its functions are not unlike those of our commission. It is widely accepted that New Zealand is an archetypal Westminster-type political system in which government periodically changes hands and there is a heavy reliance upon the type of ministerial authority that we usually seek to restrict. Thus the commission is composed of three members all appointed by the minister responsible for local government, but it teaches at least two lessons that might be of use to us.

Europeans and Maori (the indigenous people) make up about 60% and 8% of the population respectively. However, to facilitate Maori inclusion, one of the members of the commission must have knowledge of tikanga Māori and can only be appointed after consultation with the Minister of Māori Affairs.

It is widely accepted that we have an ethnic problem and that local democracy may be one way of mitigating it. Yet, we tend structure our relationships as if we live in a country with a normal political system. The Bill does state that those appointed to the commission must, among other things, have extensive knowledge, of Amerindian Affairs, but one would have thought that even if the government sees advantage in the status quo, when these types of restructuring are being proposed, those who are quarrelling for shared governance would have at least attempted to better account for our complex political tapestry.

Finally, although it is unclear who, if anyone is to give policy directions to our commission, if the intention is to facilitate broad and informed local participation, particularly given our persistent difficulties with consultation and accountability, the following should be noted.

In order to give the public the opportunity to assess the New Zealand Commission’s performance, the minister, after consultation with the commission and others, can specify the government’s expectations of it, and the commission must publish these expectations on its website, together with a statement describing how and the extent to which it has met them and the impact that meeting them has had or will have on the exercise of its powers.

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