It is time for the Minister to call a date for local government elections

Dear Editor,

The President’s refusal to assent to the Local Government (Amendment) Bill should not hold up the hosting of Local Government Elections (LGE). All that is required now is for the President to instruct the Attorney General to move the case to the judiciary. There, the court can decide whether certain functions conferred on the Local Government Commis-sion (LGC) exceed the constitutional authority of Article 78A, thus making Local Government (Amendment) Bill No. 12 of 2012 “null, void and of no effect” as articulated by the Attorney General.

No amount of political grandstanding, rhetoric and declarations in the press will resolve this issue, as we approach a year since parliament approved the four local government reform bills. If the President and his government are serious about determining the legislation’s constitutionality, then move to the courts quickly for resolving, once and for all, the essential legal questions.

Notwithstanding the need to clarify the bill’s constitutionality, there is no compelling reason to delay establishing and announcing a date for holding LGEs. The government must act now.

I say this not only because I agree with the statement that “three-quarters of a loaf is better than none,” as advanced by opposition parliamentarian Khemraj Ramjattan but also because the disputable issues do not affect the hosting and execution of local elections.

In fact, while we wait for a ruling on the outstanding bill’s constitutionality, the government and parliamentary opposition can agree, in terms of mutual national interest, to proceed with the elections under the old laws where the powers still reside with the Minister of Local Government instead of the LGC. A healthy dose of political maturity and political will from our elected policy-makers can facilitate this process quickly.

I have seen in the press and in other public forums the belief of some that the contested pending bill is the one containing the provisions establishing the LGC’s roles and functions. I wish to reiterate that this is not so. The Local Government Commission Act was passed and assented to last year by the National Assembly and the President, respectively, and the structure and roles of the Commission have been elucidated. Among its many powers is the LGC’s responsibility to “deal with all matters relating to staffing of local government organs” including “employment, transfer, discipline and dismissal of staff” and approving “remuneration, superannuation, training, leave and promotion of staff.” What the outstanding bill seeks to do is confer additional powers on the Commission. Moreover, once the Minister of Local Government signs the commencement order, then the nomination process of commissioners under the LGC Act would begin.

I personally have an issue with either the Minister of Local Government or the LGC deciding on who gets to run the administrative affairs of the municipalities around the country. That responsibility should be left to those elected authorities who are closest to the citizens, and which, in this case, would be the elected mayor and councillors.

The buck should stop with the Mayor, in particular. This is what local self-government is all about: the ability of local authorities to regulate and manage a substantial share of public affairs under their own responsibility and in the local population’s interests. Powers given to our municipalities should be full and exclusive, allowing discretion for them, as far as possible. One pragmatically cannot expect to hold our mayors and councillors responsible for the overall interests of their respective areas and communities and then deny them the right to decide who gets to execute policy on their behalf. Thus, the Minister or the LGC should only have a supervisory role in this process.

However, that is a discussion for another time. At the moment we have sufficient laws to work with and it is time for the Minister to call a date for LGEs.

Yours faithfully,

Clinton Urling

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