We welcome the long-awaited appointment by the APNU+AFC government of the seminal Local Government Commission (LGC) notwithstanding concerns about the basis on which the AFC General Secretary Marlon Williams was chosen as a member. The constituting of this body will now give fuller expression to the dividends from the historic Local Government Elections which were convened in March last year. Regrettably 19 months have elapsed since those elections without local authorities being able to interact with and be guided by the LGC. Hopefully the LGC will hit the ground running and will have sufficiency of resources that permits it to visit local government bodies and observe their daily operations and statutory meetings.
The first challenge for the LGC will be for its members to craft a modus vivendi for their deliberations. Undoubtedly, given that both of the main political groups in the country were responsible for nominating the majority of its members, the LGC is at risk of being hobbled by the political fault lines that have become even more pronounced at the national level in recent weeks. The members of the LGC must eschew this tendency to reflexively see local government matters through the political prism. There must be cordiality and a genuine attempt to compromise, if not reach consensus on the matters that come before it.
Second, among its main tasks will be the hiring and disciplining of those local government officers within its remit. This has been a highly contentious matter over the last two decades since the ministry responsible for local government has been the main arbiter in the process. This will no longer be the case and the LGC now has to recruit on the basis of merit, not on the politics of the individual. The Regional Executive Officer performs a pivotal role in the regions and there has been unending acrimony over their hiring, firing and performance. This is an area that the LGC commissioners must examine very carefully and the Commission must also immediately hire independent legal counsel to help it operate within the laws of the country.
Third, the LGC must immediately begin drawing up a work programme and identify its priorities. It must publish this and circulate widely so that local government bodies and the public can be aware of its plans and begin engaging them on their priorities.
Fourth, an urgent task for the LGC should be a detailed examination of the financial basis of all of these bodies. The Fiscal Transfers Act sets the framework for transfers from the centre to the local government bodies. Before they can access the full sum available from the central government, local government bodies must show diligence in collecting rates and taxes from persons residing within the boundaries of their community. Collections have been historically poor and ways have to be found to improve this figure so that the councils can be in a better position to discharge their functions. This is an area for the LGC to examine and perhaps make recommendations.
Fifth, the LGC must open lines of communications for members of the public who have serious problems with the manner in which their local authorities are functioning. Numerous complaints have been made in the media and on social platforms. The LGC should invite submissions of complaints and arrange the occasional public forum at which these matters can be addressed.
Sixth, there are several issues which require the immediate attention of the LGC. These include the conduct of the Mayor and City Council and several of its senior officers in relation to the allegation that a city constable sexually assaulted a juvenile. There is also the matter of the government trying to impose its will on the Mocha Arcadia Neighbourhood Democratic Council in relation to the relocation of squatters from the Lombard Street area.
Seventh, the LGC must do all in its power to rebuff any attempt by the government or the Ministry of Communities to insert themselves into the business of the Commission. All correspondence and contact between the government and the LGC must be placed in the open to ensure that there is no compromising of the Commission.
Among other functions, the LGC will 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.
It has wide-ranging powers and must use these judiciously to enable local government to take hold at the grass roots and deliver improvements to the people.