City Council has become a national joke

Some years ago in conversation with a colleague I had referred to City Council as an “archaic and useless body” that exists to furnish us with laughs, and one that also serves as a useful model of how an important democratic institution could disintegrate in the absence of crucial reforms, years of political wrangling and numerous internal trivialities.

The failure to implement local government reforms has increasingly exposed the deficiencies in the system, such as central government’s control over the purse strings of local authorities and the marginalisation of the citizenry in the management of their communities. Likewise, the failure of successive PPP/C administrations to hold local government elections over the last two decades makes a mockery of the “return to democracy” that the ruling party has touted since 1992.

20140104ianaAs frustrating as all of this has been, it is the Council itself which has become a national joke in our democracy, and unbearably so.

This is a Council that regularly meets to discuss matters relating to our welfare but has no sustained impact on anything relating to the city, certainly not within the last decade of its life. Some of these meetings descend into personality-driven attacks and the next day we have to read about who is contemptuous, who is blocking progress, and the like.

This is a Council that actually called a meeting to discuss the Haitian earthquake back in 2010 and spent around fifteen minutes seeking to find “the truth behind the earthquake”, but has no disaster preparedness plans for our communities that I am aware of, especially those vulnerable to flooding.

The majority of news coming out City Hall is comical, the kind of stuff you would laugh at and forget, if only it wasn’t that serious – extraordinary meetings being held in the courtyard after Councillors were locked out of the Chambers (first time in the Council’s history), meetings being cancelled because someone was not permitted to say a prayer, showdowns in public over whether money should be collected by patrons engaged in Easter Day activities, ongoing lawsuits over the position of Town Clerk, and the list goes on.

Indeed disagreements are expected as the authorities will differ from time to time on strategies maybe even objectives, but at some stage the jokes must end and the important business of managing the city attended to.

But this outdated Council has outlived its usefulness. Many of us are no longer amused; as the frequency of the headlines increase I find it harder to laugh.

The indifference I referred to earlier was a result of a defective local government system – a system that has robbed me of an opportunity to get interested in organising at the community level during those early teenage years when I developed an interest in democracy and how it actually worked.

It’s true to some extent what the Mayor says— that the power to get things done lies with central government which continues to toy with the Council, and would release financial and other resources at its convenience. “A process is at hand to denigrate the council,” Mayor Hamilton Green is often quoted as saying. He might be right, but the limitations aside, the Council is as defective as the system.

City Council’s non-performance and inability to deliver services that fulfil the needs of our communities are unacceptable. What’s more is this Council is operating without the resources, strategies, and technical personnel to respond to the developmental demands of our communities.

Further, this Council has no connection to me or the citizenry it barely serves – it’s a relic of a period when local government did not engage citizens in any direct way yet was somehow entrusted with power over matters that are crucial to our welfare.

More importantly, this Council, in its present form, cannot act in the best interest of our city; multiple crises plague our capital, from garbage-filled communities to regular flood devastation in several sections of South Georgetown.

Whatever purpose this Council might have served, it did so a long time ago; it is time now for new leadership and a reformed system that will bring the people closer to the system. It is time for local government elections!

This country needs a working local government system that involves community representatives throughout the process; a system with a modern agenda that places individuals and communities in positions of power to influence development around them, systems that are inclusive and allow us to participate in the planning and policy decisions.

Local government elections will provide a blueprint for revitalising our democracy that is crippled by political impasse and the divisive rhetoric frequently peddled in our communities over and over again. It’s time that we start organising on our own without the political elites trying to feed us a particular agenda or get us to focus on history we would like to move on from.

These elections will help us to conduct the kind of scrutiny at the grassroots level of our democracy that is required for building up a more transparent and accountable system of governance—it is precisely what this country needs to improve the quality of life, opportunities and the health of our communities.

For too long, there has been disconnect between the local government system and the people, which this government, in the very least, ought to be aware of yet it has resisted calls for local government elections. There is an undisguised fear on the part of the administration to call the elections and consequently, it is finding it harder to come up with explanations for the delay.

It is important to recognise the increased calls by ordinary citizens for the elections to be held, and it is becoming clearer every day that the current system needs to change. In fact, it needs urgent restructuring so that a wider range of stakeholders could help to shape the political and economic life of the communities in which they live.

It is equally important to recognise that while the government is delaying the elections, City Council is further disintegrating and becoming a bigger circus than it was years ago when it was seeking the “the truth behind the Haitian earthquake”.

The reality, in truth, is that a reformed local government system will help strengthen the ability of a new generation of citizens to organize, not just for these elections but in the future. People will develop a better understanding of the developments taking place in their communities and follow whether projects are producing value for money.

Consequently, government will find that citizens in every community have searching questions and that these will extend beyond what is happening in local government, which may in no small part explain its reluctance to call the elections.

Have a question or comment? Connect with Iana Seales at about/me/iseales.

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