Since the historic March 2016 Local Government Elections, one of the principles underlying Stabroek News’s coverage of any story is to determine whether it pertained in the slightest to any local government authority and if it did, then a valiant effort must be made to engage with that authority and to canvas its views on the matter being reported. Quite often, those in charge of the authority are unwilling to speak as the culture of openness is alien to them, they don’t want to mash corns or to go against political loyalties. On other occasions, the authorities speak forthrightly and are gratified that they have been included in the discussion. It is really a question of showing respect for local government authorities elected after a 22-year gap.
One wished that the Ministry of Communities – the line ministry for local government – showed similar respect. To the contrary, as evident in the case of the Mocha Arcadia NDC and the planned relocation of squatters, the ministry showed the exact opposite – disrespect.
On July 31st, Minister in the Ministry of Communities, Valerie Patterson-Yearwood announced to the media at a mid-year review for the ministry, that dozens of squatters who had lived for years in dire circumstances at Broad and Lombard streets would be relocated within the East Bank Demerara NDC. On the face of it, it sounded like an eminently reasonable proposition once there was sufficient space in the community. These squatters had come to the notice of a visiting Inter-American Commission for Human Rights team which had implored the government to do something about the shocking circumstances they were living in. The only problem was, and it was a big one, the ministry had not consulted with the NDC at all on its plan to relocate the squatters there.
The NDC first heard of the scheme from the media following the minister’s announcement on July 31. It was not until September 11, that the NDC was formally notified of the plan at which point concerns and objections were raised. As a result of the dissent, a broader consultation was organised for yesterday at the NDC in Mocha Arcadia. The Chairman of the NDC, Rudolph Adams subsequently explained to Stabroek News his NDC’s concern over the central government plan.
“Our community has its own social problems in terms of crime and drugs and so forth and that area, I personally know that it has a problem with drugs. The police have been running regularly to those areas, and to bring those persons into our community is like transferring the problem from one area to another.
“…our recommendation to them is though we understand the Ministry’s mandate, we were asking that they distribute, because they’re saying it’s 45 families…And perhaps we can get more socially out of it and so forth,” he added.
These were all valid points which seemed to have escaped the Ministry of Communities. It may be that because Mocha Arcadia has been considered a stronghold of APNU and voted solidly for APNU+AFC at the Local Government Elections last year that the government believed it could operate by fiat within the community. Whatever the reason, the ministry’s actions evinced callous disregard of the NDC not so long after the historic elections. It is a worrying development that would undermine the independence of local government particularly in the absence of the Local Government Commission which the APNU+AFC government continues to inexplicably refuse to compose.
The Ministry is now on notice that it must show maximum respect to each and every local government authority that it crosses paths with. It must take on board the legitimate concerns of the Mocha Arcadia NDC about being overwhelmed by an influx of squatters. If the government wants to relocate the squatters there then it must negotiate with the NDC how this is going to be achieved and provide the requisite resources to make it possible without miring the NDC in debt and underdevelopment.
More than two years on, the muddle over the relocation of the squatters exemplifies continuing disorganisation within the government where a bevy of ministers and other officials speak in disparate terms on important matters, drawing authority from various sources. In this case it was the Head of the Central Housing and Planning Authority, Lelon Saul who issued the mea culpa when one was expecting Minister Patterson-Yearwood or Minister Bulkan to authoritatively address the matter.
The confusion was nowhere more evident than in the ill-advised pronouncement by Minister in the Ministry of Social Protection, Keith Scott on single-parent women working as night guards. His remarks had to be repudiated by his senior minister Ms Ally and the Minister of State Harmon. Aren’t these policy matters discussed at Cabinet first?
While the government has earned enormous credit for staging local government elections, its outlook and the current political culture shows little respect to local government authorities. A radical change is needed in the manner in which central government speaks to and functions in relation to NDCs and other local government authorities.