Local gov’t polls committee set to roll

Chairman of the Special Select Committee of Parliament – which is to look at four local government bills and pave the way for elections – Basil Williams yesterday said that the committee will be meeting on Wednesday afternoon where he will propose that they first look at the Local Government Commission Bill.

APNU MP Williams, who became chairman of the committee after the combined opposition used its majority to out-vote the PPP/C’s nominee for the position, Local Government Minister, Ganga Persaud, expressed the hope that the parties can work together and quickly to ensure that the long-delayed elections are held.

Welcoming the statement last week by the four Western diplomatic missions calling for early local government polls, Williams said that at Wednesday’s meeting he will propose a methodology on how the committee should deal with the bill and he hopes that after they would have addressed the Commission Bill they would move on to the Fiscal Transfers Bill. He said those are the two substantive bills and the ones more important to paving the way for elections.

The Local Government Commission bill is intended to set up the Local Government Commission to deal with all matters related to regulation and staffing of local government organs and resolve disputes within and between such organs, in keeping with Article 78 (a) of the Constitution. The Commission’s specific functions include monitoring and reviewing the performance and the implementation of policies of local government organs.

Basil Williams
Basil Williams

The Fiscal Transfers Bill will set the formula for subventions from central government to local government organs.

At Wednesday’s meeting also, it is expected that the committee would come up with a time frame for its work in dealing with the four bills-the other two being the Local Government (Amendment) Bill and the Municipal and District Councils (Amendment) Bill.

Apart from Williams and Persaud, the other members of the committee are Presidential Advisor on Governance, Gail Teixeira, APNU’s Ronald Bulkan, Joseph Harmon and Amna Ally, AFC’s Dr Veerasammy Ramayya and the PPP/C’s Bibi Shadick and Neil Kumar.

At the committee’s first meeting late last year there was an early stand-off between the two sides on the chairmanship and they were stalemated because Dr Ramayya was absent. The Opposition had argued that the government was just delaying the evitable while the government side had maintained that it was improper for the opposition to have the chairmanship of the committee as the bills had to be piloted by the Local Government Minister.

Asked whether he was considering having the input of the public or any expert, Williams told Stabroek News he does not see that as necessary as “there has been those kinds of things already, it is nearly eighteen years since we have had local government elections and the time is for us to push this.”

“I am hoping that we can work together in the interest of the country and the interest of getting this done”, Williams said yesterday.
He pointed out that for almost eight years there was a Joint Task Force on Local Government Reform which was established in 2001 with the PPP/C and the PNCR co-chairing and there would have been inputs from both sides. The thinking was that the two sides would come to an accord on reforms to the existing system before the relevant legislation was presented to Parliament. However, in 2009 then Minister of Local Government Clinton Collymore, who was the PPP/C’s chair on the task force, unilaterally ended the talks between the two sides on the ground that they could not reach a common agenda. The bills that were subsequently taken to Parliament were those that were fashioned by the government.

Asked what will happen should Minister Persaud refuse to take the bills back to Parliament after the committee would have completed its work, Williams said they would deal with that issue if it arises while expressing the hope that good sense would prevail.

Persaud has said that the Government is no longer responsible for the Bills since the opposition chairs the committee and last year when they had stalemated he had signalled that the government would not take the Bills back to the House if it did not chair the committee.

Persaud had said then it has “never happened in the history of this country” that the government pilots a bill then sends it to a select committee and does not chair the committee to examine it. “If someone takes the baton from you in the committee and if it is  not a minister, then that bill cannot be presented back to the parliament. Who is going to take it through? That would not be the work of the minister? That is a strange happening,” Persaud had said, while calling the development “significant.”

Pressed further last week about his position on the Bills and whether he would take it back to the House after it passes the select committee stage, he said: “That is a matter for the sub-committee to decide on.” After bills are taken back to the House, the responsible ministers pilot them through their second and third readings.

Williams yesterday said that the ruling party has had the local government issue in its hands for over ten years and they have not seen it fit to convene local government elections. He said this is so because they are happy with the way things are where the Local Government Minister wields  power over all the local authorities in the country and recently has sought to ride roughshod over the system. He noted that the government has been installing dubious Interim Management Committees in neighbourhood democratic councils, overriding the will of the people who would have elected their officials.

Last week the missions of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union in a joint statement called for early local government elections.

“Given the important and pressing need for effective local governance, we believe that 2013 should be a watershed moment for the people of Guyana — the year they can once again democratically elect their local government,” said the statement signed by US Ambassador D. Brent Hardt, European Union Ambassador Robert Kopecky, High Commissioner of the United Kingdom Andrew Ayre, and High Commissioner of Canada David Devine.

The joint statement, a mechanism used sparingly by the Western missions and only for critical issues, could be seen as particularly targeted at the government which has been in office unbroken since 1992 with local government elections having been held only once – in 1994. The government has blamed a number of factors for the non-holding of local government elections but critics have argued that it has been in charge of the process and it was always within its ability to hold the elections.

“While Guyana has made great strides in strengthening its democracy, the continued absence of democratically elected and effective local government remains a persistent drag on Guyana’s national development and its attractiveness as an investment destination.  Only when people have transparent and accountable institutions at all levels of government — national, regional and local — will they have confidence in their future,” the joint statement said.

It pointed out that Guyana has not held local government elections since 1994, and “the institutions and practice of local governance have withered on the vine since that time.”
(Oluatoyin Alleyne)

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