Rebalancing of councils was lawful, guided by considerations such as demographics

Dear Editor,

Since the announcement and publication of Order No.19 of 2018 which among other things listed the name and composition of the eighty councils participating in this year’s historic local government elections (LGEs), there has been much noise from the political opposition with baseless allegations of “gerrymandering, tinkering, plot to undermine the PPP stakes at LGE, no consultation and even to damage local democracy”. The hollowness of the latter allegation, made by Dr. Frank Anthony and others is exposed by the reality that it was this administration that restored local democracy after a hiatus of two decades and aims to fortify the gains with the first holding of consecutive LGEs as legally due in Guyana’s post-independent history. Dr. Anthony and his colleagues should be reminded that the PPP by their every action does not believe in or subscribe to the concept of local democracy, so no one should be fooled by their pious bleating.

PPP’s representatives Mr. Zamal Hussain and Mr. Denis De Roop joined in the chorus of advancing untrue and unsubstantiated claims (August 9, 2018 Stabroek News) which continues to be parroted by members of the Parliamentary Opposition such as the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Zulfikar Mustapha and Ms. Gail Teixeira to which, with your permission, I wish to offer some clarity.

It is instructive to note that the exercise of rebalancing the size of some councils was done pursuant to sections 5 and 12 of the Local Democratic Organs Act Chapter 28:09 which specifically states that the Minister may by Order provide for, among other things, the composition and constitution of each local democratic organ.

Editor, this exercise and the legal provision enabling might have come as a surprise to these members of the Opposition which may be attributable to the fact that their Party did not see the importance of local government and through deliberate acts and omissions relegated the system to irrelevance. This system has been exhumed by the David Granger- led administration and we are injecting life into it.

Notwithstanding the soundness of this exercise in law, it was not done capriciously. This was a decision aimed at rationalising the size of councils vis a vis their responsibilities and was duly guided by relevant considerations such as the demographics of these areas.

There existed an anomaly where some Neighbourhood Demo-cratic Councils (NDCs) are larger than some municipalities. For instance, the total seats on the Aberdeen/Zorg-en-Vlygt NDC (18) is more than that of the second most populous and one of the larger geographical municipalities in the country-Linden which has 16 seats. It should also be noted that the size of the Linden Municipality was also reduced for the 2016 elections from 18 to where it is presently. Hence, the rebalancing of the size of council is clearly not novel.

Moreover, the composition of the established 129 NDCs were done by Ministerial Order No. 51 of 1990. This Order which delineated Guyana entirely was done on a conceptual basis and is now being refined. A number of circumstances not least among them demographics have changed in the past twenty-eight (28) years that logically necessitates on the basis of current realities these adjustments.

In Moruka/Phoenix Park, a recently activated NDC, there are approximately five hundred and twenty-four (524) electors. Order No.51 of 1990 prescribed that this NDC have a total of fifteen (15) seats. Had the prescriptions of this Order been adhered to there would have been a 35 electors to 1 councillor ratio. How logical? Order 19 of 2018 as issued by me took this into consideration and prescribed a total of six (6) seats (3 PR and 3 FPP). The point is that we are learning from experience.

Moreover, the enactment of the Local Authorities (Elections) (Amendment) Act No. 26 of 2009  introduced a mixed Electoral System in which 50% of LDO Councillors are directly elected by their constituents (First-Past-the-Post) and the remainder through Proportional Representation (PR). The number of constituencies as prescribed by Order No. 51 of 1990 was purely created under the PR system and with the enactment of the aforementioned legislation, the size of councils were split in half to facilitate the amendment. This change should have been informed and buttressed by a process of identifying constituencies based on demographics but this was not done. This work has started with the fifteen (15) organs in question but is certainly not complete.

Mr. De Roop in his media conference suggested that residents should have been “ask(ed) if they are willing to go into local authorities” but Article 12 of our Supreme Law clearly underscores not only the importance of local government to the organisation of the State but the entitlement of each Guyanese to participate in the management and development of their community.

Editor, the determination of whether residents in these new LAAs would be required to pay rates and taxes is not a decision of central government but one that resides within each LDO. Once lawfully constituted, those organs enjoy autonomy under the Constitution. Mr. De Roop, please take note.

In one instance, Mr. De Roop claims that the government is ‘imposing’ local government on residents by activating NDCs and later claimed that the government should be “increasing representation” in No. 52 -74 where the size of the council was rebalanced. Mr. De Roop’s double standard, which is not dissimilar from the Party he represents, is very unhelpful in encouraging citizens’ participation and taking hold of this Constitutional right, which was whimsically denied for two decades by the past administration, to manage their community affairs. It begs the question of their sincerity to local government development.

The Kaieteur News Tuesday 21st headline based on the allegations made by Mr. Mustapha captioned `Government resorts to violating Constitution to secure win at upcoming LGE’ is not only far from the truth but is very unfair especially given the efforts of this administration in restoring local democracy. Ironically, Mr. Mustapha alleges that I failed to consult with residents and in so doing contravened Article 13 of the Constitution.

It was through meaningful consultation that the new township of Mahdia, though the external boundaries encompasses the titled Amerindian villages of Campbelltown and Micobie, excludes these villages as is the expressed desire of their respective Village Councils.

In fact, Editor, the activation of the eight (8) new NDCs (being among the aforementioned 129 NDCs) is as a direct result of the pleas of residents in those areas for greater representation. Residents bemoaned the lack of representation by their Regional Democratic Council (RDC) on issues that affect their communities. For instance, the communities in the lower Pomeroon (from Charity to its mouth) have been complaining of perennial flooding as a result of poor maintenance of drainage infrastructure and consequent deleterious impact on their livelihood but receive inadequate assistance from the RDC. Residents in these communities will now have an LDO to represent their interest. The same applies to residents on the Linden-Soesdyke Highway and on the East Bank of Berbice.

Ms. Teixeira’s accusation, therefore, that government is increasing the local authority areas to “improve the number of votes they collect” exemplifies not only the PPP/C misguided fixation on “winning” but its unrelenting ethos of control and dominance. It was this same attitude that fuelled this Party, when in government, to replace democratically elected councils with handpicked individuals by imposing odious Interim Management Committees (IMCs).

Mr. De Roop in ignorance claims that the government “want to go down the same line again” in terms of resolution of ties. It is surprising that his colleagues in Parliament failed to inform him of the recent passage of the Local Authorities  (Elections) (Amendment) Bill 2018 which deprives the Minister of the power previously exercised in the resolution of ties in the election of Mayors, Chairmen, and Vice Chairmen. This amendment provides for the resolution of ties by the use of the democratic (plurality) principle.

Again, another baseless and misplaced aspersion of mal-intent. Clearly, no opportunity for any exercise of Ministerial authority in this regard.

As it relates to the issue of demarcation of boundaries, this falls within the remit of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) to give effect to the Ministerial Order which has not breached any law.

Latest to join the fray is former Local Government Minister, Mr. Ganga Persaud M.P, who in the Guyana Times August 22, 2018 edition accuses me of being “undemocratic, overstepping my boundary, conspiracy, secrecy and setting the stage for manipulation of results” all of which are equally hollow.

Editor, it is impractical to respond to each and every allegation made by the political opposition as we are otherwise engaged with our focus to consolidate the gains in the restoration of functionality to the LG system.  One of our main focuses at this juncture is increasing community engagement, involvement and electoral participation in LG via the medium of public education and awareness. Suffice it to say, the track record of this administration on local governance both in the 10th Parliament and now in government speaks volumes of our unambiguous and unwavering commitment to meaningful local democracy and people’s empowerment. It is undeniable that the trajectory of local governance in Guyana is changing. While the arousal of suspicion and aspersions of mal-intent may be unavoidable, the government and by extension the Ministry of Communities will not be distracted in this restoration exercise. We, therefore, urge all Guyanese to seize their constitutional right to manage and develop their community come November 12. Your Community needs you!

Yours faithfully,

Ronald Bulkan

Minister of Communities

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