The Minister of Local Government has no authority to dictate to the city council; the Town Clerk (ag) is the chief administrative officer of the council not the CEO

Dear Editor,

Please refer to a letter which appeared in your Stabroek News issue of Thursday, February 12, 2015: ‘It would be highly irregular for the Mayor’s Office to manage the sale of “spots” for Mash Day’ by Minister Norman Whittaker. We wish to examine this letter at two levels: The attitude and interference of the Minister in the daily administration of council’s business, and inaccuracies contained in his letter.

We have to say that this Minister has never ceased to amuse us with his ill-informed utterances and strange positions on issues affecting the smooth functioning of the Georgetown City Council.

First, we do not know by what authority the Minister keeps inserting himself into the daily operations of the Mayor and City Council. The Minister has no authority to dictate to or instruct this duly elected democratic council. Implicit in the tenor of his letter is a serious political issue which suggests that there is no role and place for the elected Mayor and Councillors in the management of the council.

Perhaps, we should remind Mr Whittaker that the Mayor and City Council is a local government authority with powers to manage its own business under the Municipal and District Councils Act Chapter 28:01 sections- 58- 62.

At City Hall, we have laws, rules, principles, policies and protocols. We do not operate by guessing our way and we certainly do not need Mr Whittaker to tell us what to do. However, what this minister has been doing is encouraging his imposed Town Clerk, Ms Carol Ryan Sooba, to disrespect the duly elected council by disregarding every single decision taken by this council. The sale of spots for Mash is a good case in point.

Historically, council has been handling sales of spots for Mashramani, Easter and other national, social and religious events through its Social Development Committee. In 2010, the council took a decision that as usual its Social Development Committee would oversee the process of allocation and sale of spots on the Merriman Mall, Vlissengen Road and other designated areas. In the statutory minutes of December 2010 it is recorded:

“It is customary for the Mayor and City Council to offer for sale spots for vending to persons traversing along the route for Mashramani. Council in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport who coordinate activities leading up to this event would liaise through persons form various entities/organizations being on its Central Executive Mashramani Committee.

“The Chairperson said that as Chairperson of the Social Development Committee she will not give up spots in some areas where the Ministry wants Council to stop collecting revenue. She noted that some persons would congregate under the assumption of watching the activity or as a family to watch and any time after midday they would open their car and commence selling, etc. However the City Constabulary does not tolerate this kind of activity.

“The Assistant Superintendent, Ms Gittens informed the committee that at a meeting involving security of the activity where she attended it is said that Council should not allow persons to vend along Church Street.

“The Chairperson noted that Council does not allow persons to sell along Church Street.

“The Secretary reiterated what was said by Councillor Chase Green, she said there are persons living along the Church Street area that on that day they would have various activities including Bar-B-Que and there is nothing Council can do in such an event because the activity would be on the person’s private property.

“The Chairperson noted that Council would also participate in the lighting up of Stabroek Market and City Hall. This was agreed by all.

“The committee took the report for notification on Mashramani 2011 and agreed that Council participates in the illumination building competition.”

In 2013 we started having problems with this event with Ms Sooba. In 2014, the problem persisted where Ms Sooba completely ignored the decision of council in relation to this event, and literally did her own thing with council’s facilities. We complained to the Minister of Local Government, Mr Norman Whittaker, about the callousness and brutish attitude of his Town Clerk but unsurprisingly, to no avail.

Again, in 2015, the matter was placed on the council’s Finance Committee agenda. That committee sent it to the Social Development Committee. However, Ms Sooba refused to call a meeting for the matter to be addressed by that committee. Instead she proceeded to instruct the City Treasurer, Mr Ron McCalmon to sign cheques, which he did, without the appropriate vouchers being signed by the two councillors agreed to by the council as required by law (Municipal and District Councils Act Chapter 28:01 section 149).

Minister Whittaker must tell the public in what way is she accountable or transparent. Or is the Minister just mouthing things to deceive citizens. In the absence of any oversight of that process by the Finance Committee or the council, Ms Sooba caused the City Treasurer to write cheques and proceeded to purchase items allegedly to do works on the mall. Yet, the Minister publicly talks about accountability. Further, there is no clear and detailed information on how those monies allegedly collected by Ms Sooba were utilized. We do not know exactly where the Minister is getting his information from, but it is very inaccurate.

This is a serious violation of the financial regulations of council and the matter has already been reported to the constabulary and the Auditor General. Ms Sooba proceeded to sell spots for Mash without the involvement of the duly elected council.

It is sad if not hypocritical that the Minister should seem obsessed about “financial accountability” when he has superintended gross financial improprieties by the acting Town Clerk. We wish to remind the Minister of the unauthorized spending of over $1 million in legal fees, another $400,000 for a sofa, the illegal waiver of more than $27 million dollars to Ganga Prasad and Sons and engaging in contracts without the authority of the council.

How could a Minister of Local Government embrace such disrespect and disregard for the rule of law by a public officer who is not even minimally qualified for the position of Town Clerk of the City of Georgetown. Something is seriously wrong; it has to be corrected.

Second, Minister Norman Whittaker‘s letter is riddled with inaccuracies. We wish to point out just a few of them.

At paragraph 2, the Minister states: “this activity must be viewed as an economic project that ought to be administered and supervised form the office of the Town Clerk ag, or the City Treasurer’s officer under the direction and supervision of the Town Clerk (ag). It is a revenue-garnering opportunity for the council not for individuals on the council. …”

Our records will show that, historically, the allocation of spots to citizens on Mash Day was never an economic activity; it is a social event. Fees were collected to assist with after Mash cleaning; not to make a profit. The city council is a service oriented entity. We do not seek to make a profit to provide service to citizens.

The exorbitant cost attached to the spots by Ms Sooba ($8000-$22000) serves as a disincentive to potential vendors and families whose only desire is to use the day to spent time with relatives and friends outdoors, under the theme, ‘One People, One Culture, One Celebration.’

Under Social Development the cost for spot started at $500.00.

Given the Minister’s enthusiasm and anxiety to defend Ms Sooba’s improper and unlawful action we could easily conclude that, perhaps, it is the intention of some forces to restrict people’s participation in this activity by making prices so high that they could not afford to go out on the Mall to experience the event. We will not allow that to happen.

Again, at paragraph 3, he noted that “the Town Clerk is the Chief Executive Officer of the council …”

We forgive the Minister but he is wrong. According to the law, section 75 (1) (2), “The clerk shall be the chief administrative officer of the council of which he is the clerk and shall have the general responsibility of co-ordinating the whole of the work of the council.

“In the discharge of the functions of his office the clerk shall have all the powers and duties conferred and imposed upon the clerk by or under this Act or any other law, and, in particular, but without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, he shall have the powers and duties assigned to him by and be responsible for the matters specified in Part I of the Sixth Schedule, and such other duties as may be assigned to him by the council of which he is the clerk.”

Later, it was agreed by the Social Development Committee and approved by council that there will be no vending on Church Street and Irving Street.

The Town Clerk is the Chief Administrative Officer of the council; not the Chief Executive Officer as the Minister supposes. The executive function of the council resides in the Mayor and Councillors, not in any particular officer. Officers have statutory duties and responsibilities not executive authority. Minister should spend a little more time perusing the Municipal and District Councils Act, Chapter 28:01.

Having considered all the facts involved, the majority of councillors took a decision to make spots available to potential vendors and those who want to picnic with their families free of cost. As a consequence, the issue of receipts for monies collected, for spots, does not apply.

We wish to reiterate that all spots on the Merriman Mall, Vlissengen and other designated areas are free of cost; citizens should not pay money to anyone for spots because council did not authorize anyone, including Ms Sooba, to collect any money on its behalf for social activities on Mash Day. One other thing, we wish to respectfully advise the Minister that instead of writing embarrassing letters to support the improper, unprofessional and illegal behaviour of Ms Carol Ryan Sooba he should join in our call for the Auditor General to conduct a forensic audit of council’s accounts. This, we believe, is a better way to protect and advance the interest of citizens and the City of Georgetown.

Yours faithfully,
Patricia Chase-Green
Deputy Mayor of Georgetown

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