By Jeff Trotman
If the people are allowed to meaningfully manage their own affairs at the local government level, Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) commissioner Vincent Alexander says the central government could pay more attention to national problems and there would be less political partisanship and suspicion in communities.
However, although reform efforts were intended to place local government control back in the hands of people, Alexander told a public consultation in Linden on November 28 that all the proposed changes have not been implemented because the politicians still want some measure of control.
He was at the time delivering the feature address, entitled ‘Local Governance, Promise, Practice, Opportunity,’ at the Linden Fund Trust consultation at the LEN Building, Republic Avenue.
In an address often punctuated by applause, Alexander pointed out that local government elections were last held in 1994 and that political parties contested the election, with each party having a list of people to fill the seats on the respective local government entities. According to him, the electorate voted for the political parties and the parties selected from their list “who should be a councillor.”
Illustrating the alterations made to the system, Alexander said the 18 councillors on the Linden Town Council would have previously been elected by the electorate voting along party lines but when next local government elections are held only nine will be elected in that way. “The other nine councillors will be elected through constituencies. Linden has been divided into nine constituencies, which can be contested by parties, groups or self-sponsored individuals.
That provides for a relationship that does not presently take place. It means you would know who is your constituency councillor and that person wouldn’t be looking back to see if next time his party would put him in power. The person would be looking forward to next time you would put him in power because you can vote him or her out and, so, that person would be more accountable to you,” he explained.
According to him, the new system is intended to make local government councillors more accountable to their constituents, rather than the current relationship in which councillors feel more accountable to their political party because the party placed them in office.
Highlighting that Guyana is a plural society in which various ethnic groups live in geographic enclaves, Alexander argued that should greater autonomy be given to local authorities, there would be less suspicion amongst the various ethnic groups because they are managing their own affairs.
“Linden, whether we like it or not, is largely an African Guyanese society. Port Mourant, whether we like it or not, is largely an Indian community. Therefore, the problems we have of central government trying to mediate between the diverse groups can be resolved by central government allowing those enclaves to do their own thing…,” he said.
Once this is done, he added, central government can concentrate on the bigger picture.
“The central government can now do what central government needs to do: regulate currency; regulate foreign affairs; regulate the police force; regulate the GDF; regulate the tax system; but not regulate the community centre; the health centre; the nursery school; the community project; a lot of those things that touch our lives can be done by us for us,” he pointed out.
Alexander believes that the local government reform offers, in a political sense, more autonomy to local authorities to practise good governance through meaningful decentralisation and if local authorities are given the power to do what they are required to do, people in the various parts of the country will have less interest in partisan politics at the central level because much of the development would be local.
Greater scope for higher revenues
Alexander, who helped craft the reforms, said they include changes in the fiscal system of local government administration to allow the entities more scope to raise money outside of taxes and to be less reliant on arbitrary subventions from the central government. He said central government currently determines how much money it would give to the respective local authorities.
Stressing that the reform attempts to curtail the arbitrary disbursement of money from central government to local authorities, Alexander said under the new system, the amount that is disbursed will be influenced by three factors: (1) population size; (2) geographic size; and (3) rate collection of the respective local government entities, which will receive incentives based on their collection.
Stressing that the local government bodies are grossly underfunded, Alexander said in some developed countries 30% of the national budget is allocated to local government, while in Guyana it is 0.02%. He added: “Never believe that when the central government gives you money it’s a favour. It’s the people’s money that they are directing to the people’s organs for the people’s business and we must be conscious of that–no favours granted.
Nobody in government produces that money. It is the people’s money being redirected to the people’s organ for the people’s development and we must demand that we are given a fair share to conduct our business (and) that we are capable at the local level of conducting our business and we need not have some central body conducting our business for us. The fiscal system is intended to have some level of equity in the way this money is delivered to local governments.”
Local gov’t commission
Alexander also said an important aspect of local government reform is the establishment of a Local Government Commission. Stating that this Commission is intended to make local government a profession, he pointed out that it has to deal with matters of staffing in a similar way as the Public Service Commission. “With such a body in place, the scope of the profession would be much greater.
Rather than each local authority embroiled in dealing with its own staff, the Commission would have that responsibility, which would allow for workers to move vertically within their local authority or be transferred vertically or laterally to another local authority,” he noted.
He said under the current system, an overseer at one local authority could be stuck in that position for the rest of his/her working life, but under the new system that person could be transferred to another entity as Regional Executive Officer. “So it is intended to create a professional environment for career development in local government. It also allows for attracting better people to the service of local government and the regulating of issues within an authority and among authorities, thereby, reducing the role of the minister,” he added.
According to him, this is an area of contention and President Donald Ramotar has refused to operationalise this aspect of the reform because he feels this area is taking up the role of the Executive of the central government.
Alexander, however, maintained that the Local Government Commission is just another constitutional body similar to the Public Service Commis-sion and the Police Service Commission.