President assents to three Local Gov’t Bills

Three months after they were passed by the National Assembly, President Donald Ramotar today assented to three of four Local Government Bills.

According to GINA, Head of the Presidential Secretariat Dr. Roger Luncheon told reporters today that the President assented to the Bills: the Fiscal Transfers Bill 2012, Municipal and District Councils (Amendment) Bill and the Local Government Commission Bill. The government had come under pressure from the private sector and Western countries to sign the bills.

The Local Government (Amendment) Bill which had several provisions that the government said it was against was not signed and Luncheon expressed the hope that time would resolve the issues. The suite of bills was meant to clear the way for local government elections which have not been held since 1994. It is unclear whether the opposition will agree to proceed to local government elections without the fourth bill.

According to the constitution, the President has 21 days to assent to bills but the government has gotten around this timeframe by sending the bill to the Attorney General’s Chambers for an assent certificate. This is not catered for under the constitution.

Analysts say the significance of the signing today is to pile further pressure on the opposition to support the anti-money laundering bill which the government and the private sector have been pleading for. APNU says that in its present state the bill is defective. The bill comes up for final reading tomorrow.

The Local Government (Amendment) Bill was the centre of much debate on August 7 when the bills were passed. There were five clauses in the bill that did not find favour with the government side.

Clauses 13 and 14 of the bill in particular seek to transplant several responsibilities which currently lie with the minister to the commission. For example, under the present laws the minister has the power to hire and fire members of local Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDCs) and municipalities.

These provisions were amended at the level of the select committee and the opposition voted to strip the minister of these powers which APNU MP Ronald Bulkan referred to as “imperialist.” Bulkan, during his presentation said that the laws which gave the minister the power to make decisions in such a manner were archaic and out of place in a “modern democracy.” He said that all efforts should be made to make the local government agencies more autonomous, hence the move by the opposition to remove this power from the government.

The government however, tried one last time to delete the changes made by the opposition and revert to the initial provision. They were unsuccessful as the combined opposition voted to keep the changes they made.

Additionally, the government, in Clause 2 (4) of this bill, attempted to insert a Regional Executive Officer (REO) in each NDC as it has done with the Regional Democratic Councils (RDCs). The opposition however, at the level of the Select Committee had voted against this attempt, and followed up on their decision when the government proposed that REOs be inserted in NDCs.

The opposition argued that the move by the government to insert REOs in RDCs has resulted in the elected officials being sidelined and said this might be replicated at the level of the NDCs.

Further, Bulkan said that the bill, as laid by government, would give them the power to determine the rates, taxes and other fees to be collected by the local governing bodies, while AFC MP Moses Nagamootoo said that if the government has their way, the NDCs and municipalities would be required to seek approval from central government to carry out their operations.

Minister within the Ministry of Local Government Norman Whittaker, however, said that it is important for government to play an important role in local governing bodies especially since it is central government which funds much of their operations. Whittaker also accused the opposition of hijacking the bill and said that their actions seek to dilute the authority of the Ministry of Local Government.

Ultimately, despite their disagreements, the parties voted to pass the Bill.

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