US Ambassador: Uncertainty clouds legislative process owing to local gov’t bills delay

US Ambassador Brent Hardt says the delay in the recently-passed local government bills reaching the President for assent has created uncertainty about the legislative process and is warning that the situation can undermine the people’s confidence in governance.

“I think it is a little concerning that they have not been signed yet,” Hardt told Stabroek News in an exclusive interview last Monday, after lauding the passage of the four long-in-the-works bills as a signal achievement by the parliamentary parties. “This kind of creation of uncertainty is what really can undermine the confidence that people have in their governance. I would certainly hope that this will move forward expeditiously,” he added.

The Local Government Commission Bill, the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, the Municipal and District Councils (Amendment) Bill and the Fiscal Transfers Bill were passed by the National Assembly on August 7 but have remained stuck at the Attorney General’s Chambers for over a month awaiting assent certification. However, Attorney General Anil Nandlall recently said he was awaiting word from the Office of the President on whether he should give an assent or non-assent certificates for the bills.

Brent Hardt
Brent Hardt

“There is certainly no reason why these bills should not be moving forward,” Hardt said. “I continue to hear from everybody that they are supporting them, that they continue to support them, that everybody recognises and understands that local government is really critical to strengthen the country and build up the communities here and I remain hopeful and optimistic that elections will take place and that would really serve to strengthen the democratic underpinnings of the country and  promote development and civic engagement that can lead to cleaner communities, more socially cohesive communities and hopefully serve as a training ground for new leadership at the national level.”

According to Hardt, his reading of the Constitution is that once the bill is passed in Parliament, it should go to the President for his assent or non-assent as the case may be.  “Recently I had seen [in the press] that the bills were sent to the Attorney General’s office allegedly to have a review to make sure that the bills were in order. But then I read in the papers this weekend that the Attorney General said he was waiting to hear from the Office of the President whether he should send the Bill forward, which seems to be a bit of a Catch-22,” he added.

If the bills were sent to the AG’s office for clearance, Hardt said, he should clear them and send them on. “He shouldn’t be looking to the Office of the President [on whether he should send them on]. It’s either one thing or the other,” he posited. “I think what this does is create a certain [degree] of uncertainty of something which is really basic and fundamental to democracy. Parliament passes bills…there really should not be grey areas on what happens next. I mean the Bills are passed in this case unanimously. They should be moved to the President as expeditiously as possible and he can review [them], approve [them] and send [them] back with whatever message or notes that he wants,” he said.

Calls yesterday to Nandlall and also Presidential Adviser on Governance Gail Teixeira for an update went unanswered. The opposition parties have criticised the practice of sending bills for vetting to the Attorney General’s Chambers—a practice that dates back to pre-independence. Clerk of the National Assembly Sherlock Isaacs has since indicated that he would carry on the practice with government bills but refer opposition bills passed by the House to the President directly.

Meanwhile, Hardt said he was made to understand from persons in government that administration intends to have the bills assented to. “The ruling party as well as the opposition did support in Parliament. From my own conversations with the government, I understand that the president is likely to assent to the bills, which his party unanimously supported in parliament,” he said, while recalling President Donald Ramotar’s acknowledgment in April that the local polls were “badly” needed. “Given the President’s views, which I have heard him reiterate on various occasions, I can only assume that he would wish to assent to the bills and move toward local elections without any further delay,” he added.

Looking ahead to the elections, Hardt said that while it would have been great to have them this year, the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) does need a certain amount of time to prepare the groundwork. The elections, which were last held in 1997, would utilise a different system than the one used for national elections. Hardt said that the through United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the US will be contributing to preparing Gecom for the local elections. “We have programmes for supporting voter education but we cannot begin those until the bills have been assented to,” he emphasised.

The US and other western countries have repeatedly pointed to the need to have local government resuscitation and had said that there is no impediment to the holding of local government elections. However, it does not appear that these elections will be held this year.

Hardt said the passage of the four bills shows what can be accomplished when the parties work together. He said he thinks Guyanese “desperately need local governance… people that they can turn to solve local issues.”

“As a recent editorial in the Guyana Times stated: ‘All over Guyana, citizens are crying out for better services. They want to see drains dug and trenches and canals cleaned. They want safer and more prosperous communities, they want to have more facilities for sports in the communities, and they want to have their views to be well represented at the national level so that central government would be more aware of issues facing citizens,’” he said.

He added that all of the parties have agreed on the need for this. “They all have compromised and the bills have passed. This is good for Guyana. The Constitution makes the point that local government is a vital aspect of democracy and should be organised to involve as many people as possible in the task of managing the areas where they live,” he said. “Constitutionally this is a great thing. But of course the problem is that the bills have not been [assented to] as yet,” he observed.

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