The Kara Kara road toll

On September 17, 2013, the Minister in the Minis-try of Local Government, Mr Norman Whittaker wrote to Mr Orrin Gordon, the Chairman of the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of Linden notifying him that the government had revoked the Kara Kara road toll. The toll had provided an important stream of revenue for the town and the IMC and other Lindeners are opposing this decree by the minister.

The kindest interpretation that can be put on the move by Mr Whittaker’s ministry is that it represents the flailing of an intrusive local government system in the throes of expiry. It was a most extraordinary act by the ministry; one that betrays a total lack of respect for local organs and reflects that the government learnt nothing from the Linden unrest last year about how to defuse potential areas of conflict.

In a notice in sections of the media, the Ministry of Local Government attempted to explain the decision. It said that after having been in existence “for many years” – it appeared not to have been able to find out how many – the Kara Kara toll order was challenged by a “stakeholder” who protested to central government and urged a review. The ministry provided no information on exactly who this stakeholder was and why suddenly in the middle of 2013 this matter was being raised. The ministry then went on to say that a legal opinion obtained by the government had deemed the order with its attendant by-laws to be null and void only because it had not been gazetted

What makes this all the more interesting is that the ministry on its own revealed that the order was not nullified as a result of a merit-based review of the order but as a result of a pure technicality. If indeed a review of the appropriateness of the order had been done and then it was later found out that the order had not been gazetted, one would have expected this to be reflected in the notice of the revocation. There was no statement in the order about any actual review being done of the basis of the toll and the outcome.

It would be unacceptable if the only reason why the toll is exceptionable is because it wasn’t gazetted as that defect can surely be cured by a proper registering of the order. It would not be unusual for any government, particularly this one, to have to legitimize some important measure ex post facto because of a lacuna. Otherwise, in this particular case it would make a mockery of the order. All those who have paid this toll for 16 years might then seek to recover their payments if it is the case that no move would be made to properly register the order.

What appears to have made enemies of the Kara Kara toll was the recent intention of the Linden IMC to have the booth manned 24 hours a day. At a recent press conference, the IMC explained that previously the booth had been operated only up to 7 pm even though the order when tabled had made provision for 24-hour use. The IMC said that persons thereby took measures to avoid the toll by traversing the area after 7 pm.

However, the IMC, now faced with an increased wage bill as a result of the minimum wage that had been introduced by the government at midyear took a decision to man the booth all day to improve revenue collection. This appeared to have upset users who apparently have important enough connections with government to have been able to secure a review of a 16-year-old road toll without even a discussion with the local authority and people most affected. Would the government be amenable to reviewing the Marriott Hotel financing structure because of a single complainant or revisit the airport expansion project on similar grounds?  Hardly likely.

The government’s decision has been made more absurd by the history of the order. It was promulgated in 1997 by then minister of local government Mr Clinton Collymore and operated without any issues since then. Indeed, the same minister who has revoked the order, Mr Whittaker himself made an adjustment to it in 2011 to enable tolls to be charged on containers and fuel trucks.

Further, the town council had informed Minister Whittaker that in its budget for 2013 it had made provision for revenue collection from the toll point and he had affixed his imprimatur to the estimates of expenditure and revenue.

If this toll has provided a stream of revenue for Linden since 1997, can it justifiably be withdrawn permanently on a technicality as opposed to an immediate move to have it legitimized? Even if the government was convinced on solid grounds that the order should not be in place, wouldn’t it be appropriate for the lost revenue to be made up from the state’s coffers or the town offered an alternative which would plug the financing gap?

Shouldn’t both the government and Mr Whittaker be acutely aware that the four local government bills, which are in the netherworld awaiting presidential assent, make provision in content and spirit for the financial stability of local organs and eschew the heavy-handed interference by central government as is the case here? Shouldn’t that spirit at least guide its actions in this matter?

The PPP/C government is big on history. It should recognize the historical basis of this decision and respect it. If there was indeed a legitimate concern from some “stakeholder” over this toll then the government should have entered into discussions with the other stakeholders: the people of Linden and their representatives and conducted a full review of all the issues at stake. It has done no such thing.

Instead, it ignores the stark admission that it bungled up for 16 years relative to the gazetting of this order and that in itself should send it into a panic about other orders lest some diligent “stakeholder” arrives at the ministry’s front door with other challenges. The ministry should move immediately to regularize the Kara Kara toll order. That is the only fair way out of the present impasse.

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