People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Councillors found themselves in the unlikely position of mediators after members of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the 8th of May Movement (8MM) clashed at the first meeting of the new Beterverwag-ting/Triumph Neighbour-hood Democratic Council (NDC) last Friday.
NDC Chairman Jimmaul Bagot, of APNU, spent the majority of the meeting defending his decisions in the face of intense criticism from Leticia Stuart, of the 8MM, even as a point of contention which had previously derailed the swearing in of several councillors became a non-issue.
A councillor, who admitted to Stabroek News that he had “no subjects” and recently learnt to sign his name, labouriously read his oath of office and signed instruments confirming his appointment as a duly-elected constituency councillor. His 8MM colleague, Stuart, also took the oath without incident.
On November 30th, when the other councillors were sworn in, bedlam ensued after overseer Michelle Otto refused to swear in three of the four 8MM councillors. Cognisant that one of its members could not read, the 8MM delegation asked that the oath be read and walked out when Otto refused.
Though it was poised to have significant sway on the 18-member council, the 8MM, which won four seats at the November 12th polls, was left empty-handed after vacillating about forming an alliance with either of the main parties. APNU won eight seats at the polls, while the PPP/C won six seats.
Last Friday, the major bone of contention was the composition of the committees which make up the council. Stuart, who chaired the Finance Committee of the last council, was not included when Bagot presented a list signed by him and Vice-Chairman Lalloo Tekchand.
Perhaps recognising that the optics of a finance committee without any 8MM member would not play well in a community where the group commands significant support, Tekchand recommended that Stuart be included as a “technocrat.” Notably the document circulated with the named members of the committee bore Teckchand’s signature as having agreed to the composition.
Bagot refused the recommendation and also refused to reconsider the composition of the six other committees beyond allowing identified members to remove themselves if they so desire.
Challenged as to the legality of his actions, Bagot argued that the Local Authorities Act does not mandate that the council is able to vote or elect members of its committees.
He specifically quoted Section 37 of the Act, which provides that the Local Authority may ‘appoint’ one or more committees of its own body for the transaction of special or of general business.
When Councillor Oscar Glasgow of the 8MM attempted to remind the Chair that the Local Authority is defined as the council in its entirety rather than the chair alone, Bagot called on Tekchand to speak to the “norm” on the East Coast.
A clearly reluctant Tekchand told the council that at every other NDC, the Chairman and Vice Chairman meet to decide the composition of committees.
“There is no vote,” he claimed. Notably, every other NDC is comprised solely of APNU and PPP/C councillors. The 8MM is the only third force grouping which has secured seats on the East Coast.
Bagot, however, stood firm in what after more than an hour of debate started to appear as a personal battle between him and Stuart.
A visibly-incensed Stuart then took aim at the proposed 2019 budget, which had not been passed by the previous council despite its remaining functional until December 31st.
She questioned the proposed revenue streams, demanding that council provide justification for its projected income of more than $100 million when in 2018 it managed to generate a mere $37 million in revenue.
Bagot, in turn, argued that the council plans to sell significant portions of land to residents, which should generate in excess of $64 million. He was however unable to provide support for the sum and refused to allow Stuart to question the overseer.
“Legally it is her who should answer me. She is the administrative officer,” Stuart pointed out before being shut down by Bagot.
‘Councillor Stuart,” he intoned, “We all know that Councillor Cumberbatch was dealing with that matter, so he will respond.”
Councillor Neville Cumberbatch was also unable to provide a clear justification for the pricing of the land.
He informed council that the plan had been to charge approximately $700,000 for each of the 21 parcels but the Central Housing and Planning Authority has refused to approve the land on offer as being residential plots.
“Each area is about 80×34, with the largest 80×40, but housing is saying the residential plots gotta have a minimum width of 50, so we don’t know what happening,” Cumberbatch told the council.
He attempted to argue that the council had been provided a valuation which priced the plots at significantly more than $700,000 but could not provide a copy of the valuation when asked by this newspaper, while stressing instead that the previous Chair Leyland Harcourt has set the prices after a conversation with a valuator.
In the end, the meeting ended with no decisions being made beyond a commitment to meet again yesterday, after the Finance Committee had further examined the proposed budget.