Election of Region One community councils in dispute

Brentnol Ashley

With the annual National Toshaos’ Council (NTC) conference scheduled to begin on Monday, the newly-elected leaders of several Community Development Councils (CDCs) in Region One are being prevented from attending as a result of a dispute over the validity of their elections.

In an interview with Stabroek News on Wednesday, Regional Chairman Brentnol Ashley said the issue was brought to his attention after a list containing the names of the previous leaders was submitted to the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs (MoIPA) to attend the conference in Georgetown. 

The issue, he contended, comes as a result of claims made by the Regional Executive Officer (REO) Leslie Wilburg that the election process used to elect the leaders was invalid. Attempts to contact the REO for a comment proved futile.

“For over seven years we have not had any Community Development Council elections in the region and so during the course of 2016 in the Matarkai Sub-Region we would have had the District Community Development Officer (DCDO) carrying out a series of elections in the CDCs’ of Matarkai, which was eventually recognized by the RDC since it was a request of the population in Matarkai. Similarly in Mabaruma, within the same year, we would have the community of Aruka Mouth changing their leadership, where the CDO would have spearheaded that,” the Chairman said. He explained that the elected councils would have been recognised by the RDC without the input of the REO since the elections were done based on request from residents in the communities. “In the latter part of 2017, people from seven of these CDC’s in Mabaruma would have requested to have elections held in their villages and so the RDC in November made a decision that all CDC’s in Mabaruma must have an election within the first quarter of the New Year,” Ashley said.

According to the Regional Chairman, they would have designated the RDC’s point person on Communities, Sarah Browne, who is also the Regional Vice-Chairperson (RVC), to spearhead this process.

“…Since 2015, when the government would have taken office, the MoIPA would have said the CDCs are not recognized by the Ministry because they are not catered for in the Amerindian Act. Similarly, the CDCs are not catered for under any law because they are not registered as a friendly society or co-op society… but they are looked at as community groups or civic groups, they are not even politically-aligned,” Ashely shared.

He explained that at the request of the people, elections were carried out, with the first being done on February 4th, 2018 in Wauna, followed by elections in St. Anslem and other riverine communities of Sacred Heart, St. Dominic’s, Unity Square, and Black Water, Barima, among others, all of which were spearheaded by Browne.

Handing over

“After those elections were done, we would have recognised those leaders and expected that the handing over process would be completed. Hence, the officer responsible for Social Cohesion would have drawn to my attention a concern from the Ministry of Communities as to why the RVC is carrying out the election and that it is the function of the REO. I explained that the REO does not have constitutional authority over any CDC, since nowhere does it state that he has to be a returning officer; the people can decide if they want a priest, if they want a prominent businessperson, if they want the community leader, a regional leader or a minister. Whoever they believe can be impartial enough or is able to guide the process in a democratic manner, they can so invite because there is no law preventing this,” Ashely related.

“So from since then, we would have the continuation of elections; the RDC would have reached again and we would have decided that we will allow the REO, on our behalf in the capacity of the Clerk of the RDC to be the retuning officer for the remaining elections, while we recognised those who would have already been done under the supervision of the RVC office,” he added.

Notwithstanding this, the Chairman said they would have written several letters to the REO informing him that letters of recognition were sent by the RDC to community leaders encouraging them to carry on with their responsibilities as community leaders. 

“Lo and below… the REO in conjunction with one of the CDOs would have been saying to former leaders who were not elected that they have to continue their functions as leaders because the elections were not recognised or were not valid. Hence the RDC at its last sitting in June would have ratified their decision, stating that their decision stands, that these leaders are recognised and so a list was prepared which was sent to the MoIPA for the upcoming NTC conference, which is scheduled for next week,” Ashley said.

“Up to about two days ago, these leaders were informed that they are expected to travel for the conference. Subsequent to that, however, they were told that the former leaders or the leaders they should have been taking over from would be the persons attending the conference on behalf of the community because the CDO said the REO instructed her to submit the old names of the leaders to attend the conference. I would have had discussions at the level of NTC and they would have told me that the REO has nothing to do with CDCs because they are not recognised in any way as communal groups. The REO has at the level of the RDC as the chairman of the tender board refused to give petty contracts under community participation to these CDCs,” he added.

Steadfast

According to the Chairman, the REO is steadfast in not allowing the leadership the opportunity to take control of their communities, while maintaining that their elections were invalid.

“The contention of us at the level of the RDC is that these persons were democratically elected by their respective community [and so] they should be given the opportunity to take on leadership roles and that the lives of these respective communities should not become political football in anyway. These leaders are being denied their democratic right in going to make representation on behalf of the people of their communities,” he added.

Meanwhile, Ashley said he would have met with several of the leaders on Wednesday morning and they had indicated their interest in taking action, particularly since the REO had up to that time not provided a “proper explanation” for why the individuals cannot carry out functions as community leaders.

“We also learnt, too, that many of these old leaders are supporters of the coalition that they are not handing over assets to new councils, leading to frustration among residents,” he added.

The Chairman also noted that they would have reached out to the MoIPA, which, according to him, continues to say that it does not have responsibility for the CDCs apart from providing resources through grants and helping them with finances to do developmental projects.

“We are very appreciative of the grants, etc., and we would like them to continue to do so but as it relates to resolving the issue they would have left that in the hands of RDC to get done.

We at the RDC believe that it should have already been solved and we do not know why there is political directives being given keeping these leaders from taking up their responsibilities,” Ashley related.

“We would have spoken to Joel Fredericks, the [outgoing] Chairman of the NTC and he would have related that he would be meeting with Anil Roberts, Principal Regional Development Officer at the Ministry.  He would have committed to raising the concern with him but I have not yet received feedback so far as it relates to the way forward,” the Chairman added.

However, when contacted Fredericks said while he was made aware of the issue, he does not yet wish to comment, since he is still in the process of gathering the facts.

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