The city authorities

The Mayor & City Council seems to lurch from one embarrassment to the next. First it was the eviction of the street vendors without having detailed arrangements in place for their relocation; then it was the scandal of the proposed parking meters; and now it’s the court humiliation in relation to the container tax recently announced by the municipality.

Where the latter is concerned, the city authorities attempted to impose a tax of $25,000 on containers parked on the road, and when consignees did not pay up they took them to court. After it was established that the municipality’s action was bad in law, the city council had to back down. Having failed via one route, the M&CC then tried another, and blocked containers from leaving certain wharfs until the tax was paid. The Shipping Association promptly resorted to the courts in order to seek injunctive relief, but withdrew their action after the association and the Private Sector Commission met Town Clerk Royston King on Wednesday evening. According to a statement issued by both organizations on Friday, they are to hold further discussions pursuant to a solution.

The first thing to be noted about the council’s actions in recent times, is that their primary motive is financial. This is not slotted into any larger vision they have for the city; it is simply about raising funds with as much dispatch as possible. They have also announced a 10% ad interim increase in rates in lieu of a full valuation exercise; this has raised less of a hue and cry thus far, because it is widely recognized that properties in general are undervalued – which is not the same thing as to say that all citizens can afford the increase.

What is acknowledged is that the M&CC has been chronically underfunded for years, and under the previous administration relied on central government for subventions which were granted in parsimonious fashion and often only after the garbage contractors had gone on strike for non-payment.  The PPP/C government would cynically tell the council to recover unpaid rates at parate execution, an exercise which they well knew was far from practicable.

It now transpires, as we reported last Tuesday, that the commercial sector owes the city over $16 billion in rates. There was, the report stated, an amnesty in effect last year, whereby interest was waived on outstanding rates, and that many residential and some commercial defaulters had taken advantage of it. However, it has remained a mystery for some ordinary citizens as to why the council has not resorted to the courts in more systematic fashion to recover the taxes owed to the municipality.

The reason, one must presume, is well known to the old hands currently in charge at City Hall, and it was certainly known to the previous government which turned squeezing the council into a form of high art. The explanation was provided by Mr Leon Rockliffe in more than one letter, the first of which appeared in this newspaper as far back as November 2007.

Without going into the full details of what he wrote, suffice it to say that in 1988  amendments were passed to the Municipal and District Councils Act, and to the Local Government Act (he says these were known “in polite circles as ‘The Nutman Acts’”). However, he goes on to explain: “This well-meaning legislation with its cumbersome provisions to thwart predatory bidding had the untoward effect of stultifying the parate execution process for rate recovering, so that little record can be found of any execution sales of that type after the year 1989. The entire system has since remained in a state of virtual paralysis.” There is another alternative to the parate execution process which has been used in a few cases, but for a number of reasons such a course constitutes, he says, “a formidable and impracticable solution.”

Nine years ago, Mr Rockliffe called for “drastic executive action” in relation to this “legal situation”, in the first instance by the “removal or attenuation of the paralytic effects of the Amendment Acts of 1988”.  There are other impediments to the reintroduction of a viable parate execution process which are listed by Mr Rockliffe, but which will not be iterated here. What can be asked is why the new council, which is as short of funds as the last one, is not pursuing with central government the remedying of the legal issue and along with the AG’s office, looking at all the other possible obstructions to reviving parate execution. If the M&CC managed to recover a substantial proportion of what it is owed, and then was able to reduce the number of defaulters on a consistent basis, it would go a long way to diminishing its financial challenges.

The next question to be asked is why the council is operating in what appears to be such an ad hoc fashion. It is true that the last council in 2015 had accepted in principle the Greater Georgetown Development Plan 2001-10,  which Akhtar Khan had been commissioned to draw up many years before, but which had never been implemented. However, if that is the basis on which the Mayor along with Messrs King, Clarke and Garrett proceeded in relation to the parking meter contract, for example, they were doing everything backwards.  First they should have brought their development plans for the city to the council for a full discussion, in addition, perhaps, to soliciting a report from a council committee on which portions of it were still relevant, and which warranted amendment.

Then there should have been proposals on which specific measures in the plan (or added subsequently) should be implemented and in what sequence, and understandings about who should be consulted for their views prior to that implementation. As it was, the last council took decisions about the parking meters and the container tax in a vacuum, even though it was at the end of its tenure and should not have been making major decisions. Following that, select members of the new council, led by the Mayor and Town Clerk took over those decisions without laying them before the new council. Needless to say there was no prior discussion with any interested parties outside the confines of City Hall who might be affected, an important element in Prof Khan’s development plan.

As it is, therefore, the council was rebuffed in court over the container tax, and the Town Clerk was subsequently forced into discussions with the Shipping Association. It is not that the citizenry of Georgetown is opposed as such to the imposition of some kind of tax on container traffic, which undoubtedly breaks up the roads. It is simply that authoritarian measures in circumstances where they were promised a new approach do not sit very well with the public, never mind the shippers.  The procedure adopted was certainly not evidence of great competence on the part of the city authorities, and pointed as well to their disinclination for a democratic modus operandi.

It might be added that the story of the parking meters has not concluded yet, whatever the AG’s findings in relation to the ‘secret’ contract. If there was ever an example of how things should not be done at a local government level, then that was it.

The Mayor of Georgetown and the other members of what might be termed the Old Guard are clearly in need of a reminder that the local government elections earlier this year were intended as a break with the past. They were supposed to introduce greater transparency and accountability into city affairs, and give the citizens of the capital some say in the local issues which affect them. It is for the last-named reason that a partial constituency system was introduced into the electoral process.

Last Sunday, the Town Clerk wrote a long letter which was published in this newspaper itemizing all the beneficial things which the council had accomplished for the residents of Georgetown. Those, however, while not denied, do not expunge the major errors it has also committed. Not the least of these is the fact that those who rule in City Hall seem to have no grasp of how to lay proposals before the council parliamentary style – and the council chamber is a kind of local parliament – and how to consult the citizens of the city, or the relevant segments thereof, on a given issue.

Ms Patricia Chase-Green and Mr Royston King, if not some others, should go to bed every night chanting transparency, accountability and democracy until these concepts come naturally to them in their handling of the city’s government.

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