Affairs at City Hall are becoming increasingly bizarre. Who would have thought that following the local government elections last year, when the citizenry was looking forward to a new era of transparency, accountability and rationality in the management of their capital, it would become a byword for exactly the opposite? At the very least, the whole story of the parking meters is one of inexplicable muddle from the very beginning. In fact, an enterprising Guyanese could even make a political mystery novel out of it, with its trip to the land of the Aztecs, its secret contract, its outrageous parking rates, its defiance of central government and its three central characters – the Lady in Green, the Broker and the Eminence Grise.
But even by City Hall’s none-too-demanding standards, what happened last week was unexpectedly surreal. In an extraordinary council meeting called to implement the order from the Minister of Communities’ requiring suspension of the parking meter bye-laws for three months, the Town Clerk managed in what our Thursday leader called “manipulative obfuscation”, to deflect the council from discussing the issue at all. Instead, with encouragement from Chairman of the Finance Committee Oscar Clarke, the council by a majority approved a motion to postpone the decision indefinitely, and instructed the Town Clerk to send to Minister Bulkan a legal opinion which said that his order was “ultra vires, null and void.”
They could have saved themselves the trouble of all their machinations, because the following day the Minister abandoned the niceties and issued a direct order for the suspension. Smart City Solution (SCS), at least, grasped the import of that act and promptly laid off all its wardens.
But what did the abortive delaying tactic of the council mean politically speaking? If nothing else the events of that day were replete with irony. Control of the city council lies with the same coalition which was elected to government, and this was a case of that government issuing an order to its own council, so to speak, which the council then disregarded. The second irony is that aside from the independents on the city council, the only element which tried to follow government’s instruction was not the PNC councillors (with one or two exceptions), but the AFC ones.
But does this go beyond a rift between the government and council? After all, Mr Oscar Clarke is the General Secretary of the PNCR as well as the chair of the council’s Finance Committee, and presumably the APNU councillors took their cue from him when they voted to delay the suspension decision. So are we to infer from this that the PNCR is at odds with the government on this matter, and if it is, could it conceivably hew its own line independently of government in a wider context? And if the PNCR is not seeing eye-to-eye with the government on the parking meter matter, just what is it that divides them?
It is certainly true that the government has been very hesitant to take a strong and consistent line on the matter, which is why it has dragged on as long as it has. In fact, it was only when there were objections from all sides that it asked last year for the contract to be sent for review to the Ministry of Finance and the Attorney General’s office. That was its best opportunity it had to grab the bull by the horns and declare the contract illegal and then send it out for tendering (which was recommended by the Finance Ministry), but despite swingeing criticism, the AG’s office temporised and declared the contract legal.
It was renegotiated, with lower rates and a shorter time-frame for operation, but that was insufficient to win over Georgetown’s residents who made their views known at the beginning of this year, first by boycotting the meters and then by mounting protests outside City Hall. The government, it seems, no less than the city council and Smart City Solutions which undertook no survey of any kind before plunging into this project, seriously miscalculated the determination of citizens, who in a first for this country organized themselves on social media. The temper of the city has now changed, and residents will no longer accept politicians’ old way of doing things, more especially at the local level.
As it is the government has found itself in another bind. Its solution to the current impasse is again to negotiate lower rates after consultations with the populace. In the first place, the position of the citizenry is not necessarily that there should be no parking meters, but that this particular contract has to go. Lower rates for them, therefore, will have no traction. Furthermore, as Mr Ralph Ramkarran pointed out recently in a column, the rates probably cannot be reduced any further otherwise SCS will be unable to make a profit.
Of course, the local courts still have to issue a decision on the legality of the contract, but even if they find it legal, given the stage we have reached, the people will not accept it and will most likely continue the boycott. The government’s problem in that instance will continue unless SCS voluntarily withdraws, and if it doesn’t the administration would eventually be forced to rescind it, if only to head off popular resistance spilling over into other areas. In any event, the real possibility exists that SCS will see fit to go to court in the event of breach of contract – possibly an international arbitral court.
The Town Clerk has been waving the fear of the contract’s in terrorem clauses like a banner in the faces of all those who seek to revoke it, in order to try and dissuade them from advocating such a course of action. It is a sublime bit of hypocrisy, since he is the one who signed the contract in the first place, without, it seems, raising any questions about such exorbitant – and dubious ‒ sanctions for recission in an impoverished city. Having said that, lawyers associated with the Movement Against Parking Meters told a meeting at St Stanislaus College last month that it was most unlikely those clauses could be enforced in the local courts, neither in an international court.
The Town Clerk’s role in all this has done him no credit, no more than has the part the other two lead actors in the drama have played. One wonders if they have learnt anything at all from this, starting with acquiring a greater familiarity with the municipal laws and those of Guyana’s statutes which have bearing on their functions, and comporting themselves accordingly. Then there is their need to operate with greater respect for the citizens of the City of Georgetown who voted them into office; they do not have carte blanche to do as they feel like. Finally, this episode should teach them to listen to what the residents say, and to gauge their mood; and their mood has changed.