Three months after his party voted for the passage of four local government bills, President Donald Ramotar has assented to only three of them and government said it hoped time would resolve issues over the remaining one.
The Fiscal Transfers Bill, the Municipal and District Councils (Amend-ment) Bill, the Local Government Commission Bill and the Local Govern-ment (Amendment) Bill were all passed unanimously by the National Assembly at its August 7th sitting, but had been stalled at the Attorney General’s Chambers for more than two months,
during which time the administration has been under pressure from the opposition, private sector and Western countries to sign them into law.
However, the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to wrest ministerial control over local authorities and to vest them in the Local Government Commission, did not receive assent—a decision that is, however, unsurprising, despite the fact that government parliamentarians voted for its passage over their reservations in August. Govern-ment’s support for the bill was a concession to the AFC in exchange for its support on enabling legislation for the Amaila Falls hydropower project. The suite of bills was meant to reform the local government system before the run-off of elections, which have not been held since 1994. It is unclear whether the opposition will agree to go to local government elections without the fourth bill, but the Guyana Elections Commission has already started preparations.
Analysts believe the signing of the bills yesterday is intended to pile further pressure on the opposition to support the anti-money laundering bill, which is to be considered at today’s sitting of the National Assembly.
The government and the private sector have been pleading for the opposition to give the needed support for the bill’s passage, warning that failure to do so could attract sanctions when Guyana’s efforts to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism are reviewed this month by the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force. Main opposition APNU has said that in its present state the bill is defective, while the AFC has identified the establishment of the Public Procurement Commission (PPC) as a condition for its support.
Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon announc-ed the signing of the bills at a news conference yesterday, the Government In-formation Agency (GINA) reported. It said too that Luncheon expressed the hope that time would resolve the issues surrounding the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, which engendered a lot of controversy that has not been resolved.
Speaking to the Stabroek News last evening, APNU’s Shadow Minister of Local Govern-ment and Hinterland Development, Ronald Bulkan said the presidential assent of the three bills was welcome though belated. “The president is not doing any favours to the nation, he is only correcting a delinquency,” said Bulkan. He mentioned the weeks of back and forth between the Office of the Clerk of the National Assembly and the Office of the President, with an unscheduled stop at the office of the Attorney General for assent certificates, which critics have blasted as an unnecessary step.
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.
Bulkan said that there was no reason given for the non-assent of the Local Government (Amendment) Bill and added that the president is obligated to give his reasons. He said that the reasons might have been because of the clauses agreed to in the Select Committee that reviewed the bills and which the government later found objectionable. One of these, he said, is the removal of the sweeping powers of the Minister of Local Government and Regional Development. He said that without the passage and assent of this bill, it means that the minister will continue to have the same sweeping powers, defeating the changes made to the Constitution.
Clauses 13 and 14 of the bill, in particular, seek to transplant several responsibilities which currently lie with the minister to the Local Government Com-mission. 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 Bulkan had referred to as “imperialist.” Bulkan, during his presentation on the bills, 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 the 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 side-lined 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 its way, the NDCs and municipalities would be required to seek approval from central government to carry out their operations.
Minister in 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.