In the April 30th, 2014 edition of Stabroek News there was a Page One comment lamenting the absence of local government elections over the preceding 20 years and criticising the PPP/C government for not holding them.
The comment said in part “As can be expected from the prolonged delay, local government exists in name only. The few municipal and neighbourhood democratic councils that are functioning are doing so under a mandate that has not been renewed for 20 years. As a means of entrenching its control of local government bodies, the PPP/C government has over the last few years set about dismantling councils and replacing their members with handpicked persons without the slightest concern that there has been no democratic renewal”.
The comment ended with a commitment by Stabroek News to carry on its front page a daily reminder to the PPP/C of its obligation to convene local government elections. While the Ramotar administration did not hold local government elections, the almost daily reminder did attract attention from all sectors of society and fuelled discussion and debate on the topic. It was an expression of the civic duty of this newspaper and it now feels compelled to revive its campaign in relation to the Local Government Commission (LGC) which the APNU+AFC government has steadfastly refused to take steps to activate.
On March 18, 2016, to its great credit, the APNU+AFC government delivered on its pledge to convene local government elections which had not been held since 1994. The holding of these elections was the clearest demonstration in 22 years that central government was prepared to restore power to citizens to take charge of their communities.
Twenty months later, there have been many teething problems. Chairpersons of local government organs and councillors have discovered that running their councils, collecting rates, tapping subventions from central government and improving their communities is an arduous task. A report in Saturday’s Stabroek News shows how little of the allocations to the various Neighbourhood Democratic Councils have been spent. Nevertheless, the 2016 elections put the people in charge of local decisions.
However, the democratic gains from the holding of the local government elections have been imperilled by the government’s politically opportunistic inaction on the establishment of the LGC. It will be recalled that when they were in opposition, both APNU and the AFC quite correctly pressured the PPP/C government to pass the long-stalled suite of legislation including the Fiscal Transfers bill and the LGC bill prior to the holding of local government elections. Former President Ramotar finally assented to the LGC Act in November 2013 even if his government never held the long-awaited local government elections.
Four years later, while the current government has made many promises to set up the LGC it has failed these extravagantly and the Communities Minister Ronald Bulkan has provided no plausible explanation for this. Neither he nor his government has credibility on this matter anymore. One hopes that the recently revived independence of thought and its traditional and hefty support for local government autonomy will inspire the WPA to put pressure on its coalition partners for the unshackling of the LGC. Both APNU and the AFC appear to be lost causes on this matter.
The LGC is vital to the optimal functioning of the local government system and would move it from the orbit of central government. It is meant to be comprised of three members appointed by the President acting in accordance with his own deliberate judgement; three members, appointed by the President, acting on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition after consultation with other parliamentary parties; one person nominated by the trade unions in the local government system and one member appointed by the Minister after consultation with local democratic organs.
The PPP/C completed its part of the process only to be incredibly told by Minister Bulkan that he expected it to consult with APNU+AFC in keeping with the letter of the law which was clearly a badly drafted piece of legislation. Under no circumstances could it be envisaged that the opposition would have to consult with the government on their own nominees. Nevertheless, the PPP/C did comply with this absurd demand but the government remains unmoved. The trade union nominee had been earlier selected by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Appointments. That left the three nominations to be made by the President and one by the Minister after consultation with the local democratic organs, many of which were won by the PPP/C.
To date, 20 months after local government elections, the President and Minister Bulkan are yet to discharge their obligations.
One can only assume that the government has seen utility in controlling local government bodies and key appointments. This behaviour is anti-democratic and adds to growing concerns that APNU+AFC talks a good game but isn’t committed to constitutional and other reforms it gave lip service to while in the opposition. It is now actively obstructing the proper functioning of the local government system.
As defined by its legislation, the LGC has broad functions which have presently been usurped by the Ministry of Communities. These include: to monitor and review the performance and implementation of policies of all local government organs, including policies of taxation and protection of the environment; monitor, evaluate and make recommendations on policies, procedures and practices of all local government organs; investigate any matter under its purview and propose remedial action to the minister; monitor and review all existing and proposed legislation, and or policies and measures relating to local government organs.
Furthermore, the LGC is to deal with all matters relating to the staffing of local government organs and in particular it is “responsible for employment, transfer, discipline and dismissal of staff and approve of remuneration, superannuation, training, leave and promotion of staff”.
The LGC is also empowered to hear appeals instituted by employees who have been dismissed by local government organs and hear and determine disputes arising within a local government area or between any two local government organs.
Importantly, the LGC has the “…power to initiate and conduct investigations into the activities of any local government organ…”
These formidable powers could have been well-utilised to address a number of the vexed issues besieging the city and the local government system.
The period for excuses is over. The government must move immediately to establish the LGC.