With the three opposition-nominated members of the Local Government Commission (LGC) accusing the government of deliberately starving the body of funds and delaying its work, Chairman Mortimer Mingo has clarified that a portion of its $110 million budget for 2018 was only recently deposited into its bank account.
Commissioners Norman Whittaker, Clinton Collymore and Carol Sooba on Friday spoke about the challenges still facing the LGC in the five months since its establishment, while complaining that Minister of Communities Ronald Bulkan is still performing functions that are within its remit.
“These people are not treating this commission with any seriousness. They have even withheld finance from the commission and to date the monies which had been voted for the commission for 2018, we haven’t seen a cent of it. We don’t even know if the money has been transferred into the accounts of the commission at the Bank of Guyana,” Collymore told reporters at the Office of the Leader of the Opposition.
It would appear that the transfer of the money into the commission’s account was not communicated to the other members of the commission as no meeting has been held since last month.
Mingo told this newspaper that after being sworn in last October, the commissioners were informed that there was a $20 million subvention available and that a budget had to be prepared.
He said that while that was eventually done, the commission was also required to seek permission from the Finance Secretary for the establishment of a bank account at the Bank of Guyana so that that the sum could be deposited.
Mingo explained that the commission received the relevant permission and with some help from the Ministry of Communities the bank account was established in early January and the money deposited.
He also said the commission’s budget was submitted to the ministry and this included funds to pay emoluments to the commissioners, to secure some capital items and to pay rental for a building to house the commission’s office.
Asked about the allocation for 2018—$20 million for capital expenditure and $90 million for recurrent expenses—Mingo said that his accountant had indicated to him two days ago that some money from both the current and the capital expenditures were also transferred to the account. He was unsure about the exact figures but noted that no meeting was held to inform the other commissioners of the transfer of the funds. The last meeting was held in February, he said.
Vital areas of authority
The three opposition-nominated commissioners all noted that the lack of finances was holding up the commission’s work.
“Our gripe is this… according to the Constitution, the Local Government Commission assumes control of the local government system… but while the law has been passed and certain allocations of finances have been made, the regime, through Mr. Bulkan, the Minister of Communities, continue to hold on to vital areas of authority belonging, by law and according to the Constitution, to the commission. So, we have a difficulty accessing funds, a difficulty accessing space, accommodation and a difficulty in how the commission responds to public pressure of public matters,” Whittaker said, while noting that because of the existing situation the commission is unable to respond to complaints that have been received.
Recently, it was noted that Bulkan appointed Orrin Gordon as the new Regional Executive Officer for Region Ten, although staffing of local authorities is among the responsibilities of the LGC. Bulkan has also been responsible for appointing Henry Smith, a representative of his own party, as the Mayor of Mabaruma after the mayoral polls ended in a deadlock. It is unclear whether the matter was referred to the LGC, which is also responsible for resolving disputes within local authorities.
Sooba told reporters that she is a member of the subcommittee established to find a suitable building to house the office. She expressed her dissatisfaction with a building located at Eping Avenue, Bel Air, which is being rented from the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry.
Sooba said when she recently visited the Eping Avenue property, she surprisingly met the Chairman there and was later given a tour. She recalled that there were spaces identified for the Chairman, Deputy Chairman, Secretary and a boardroom. She said she inquired about space for the other members of the commission and was told that they “can utilise the boardroom if needs be.” In addition, she noted, the building lacks adequate furniture.
“Even with no financial resources, we have been making tremendous efforts to advance the work of the commission. What is important for us now is that the budgetary provisions for 2018 be released so that we could pay [for] the rental of the office…pay staff, acquire furniture for the office. People have been asking where your office is,” Whittaker noted.
While the three opposition-nominated commissioners alleged that Bulkan has been interfering in the work of the commission, fellow commissioner Marlon Williams said there is no evidence to support such claims.
“There is no such evidence. There might be perception of that but there is no such evidence,” he told this newspaper when contacted.
Collymore told reporters that Bulkan has been identified “as the man who is retaining authority that does not belong to him. Because of them, we are stymied and we appear to be under some kind of strangulation where this man is concerned.”
Whittaker accused government of giving the commission political directives, while “sheltering under claims of local democracy.” He suggested that the commission is a “face, a front” and in the background Bulkan is still in control. “So what we have is a parallel administration,” he said, before adding that constitutional agencies such as the commission ought to be autonomous, impartial and be allowed to operate without interference.
Reporters were told during the press conference that as a result of the challenges encountered, the commission has written to Bulkan, the Minister of Legal Affairs and the president. However, to date there has been no response.
The three commissioners assured that the dispatching of the letters was a unanimous decision.
Williams, a nominee of the minister of communities, confirmed that there was consensus on a letter being penned to the president.
Later, he stressed that the commissioners are working very hard to get the LGC up and running.
“…Everything being done is in its infancy stage. There is no precedent in terms of not even the fees for the commissioners. Nothing. Absolutely nothing… simply because the commission was not in existence period,” he said.
While expressing disagreement with the three commissioners saying that government is stymying the work, he admitted that there is a lot more work to be done and the pace should be quickened.
“The commission had to get a bank account, VAT registration …it’s basically like you are setting up a brand-new company, which takes time. The Local Government Commission, if you look at the Act, is almost a parallel ministry. The commission is responsible for everything from employment right down to disciplinary action and those levels of systems required some time,” he emphasised.
Williams also pointed out that there is no existing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and said that there has to be structure in place for decision making. “What is required now is crafting of legislation, SOPs, a whole series of issues have to be address at the Local Government Commission level and I can understand people getting frustrated with a process which literally started the other day,” he said.