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Friday 6 December 2019
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Commentary

Local govt eunuchs?

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Eunuch. This means “a castrated man, especially one formerly employed at an oriental harem or court; a person lacking in effectiveness” (Concise Oxford Dictionary).

Noting the political landscape as derived from media reports, parliamentary debates, councillors’ and citizens’ complaints, we find lots of politicians and related public officials not castrated, but certainly “lacking in effectiveness.”

There seems to be a serious lack of political effectiveness in local government delivering the required services to citizens. This is particularly evident from those services legally required under the 14 municipal corporations.

I am quite impressed with the enthusiasm now being expressed by so many local government candidates, mainly young, well-qualified ones. They should be encouraged.

But given the documented history of local government ineffectiveness, financial scandals and corruption, broken-down infrastructure, widespread taxpayer frustrations and the persistent bureaucratic restraints, I hope another generation of political eunuchs is not on the way.

Read the joint select committee reports, compare sections of the 1990 act with current performance of councillors and the corporations regarding roads, drainage, garbage and sanitation, buildings, road signs, financial accountability, broken pavements, vending, traffic controls, dirty beaches, market safety and sanitation, municipal policing, even selling meat and fishing outside the market, etc. For many years now the inefficiency, ineffectiveness and irresponsibility have been shameful.

It is as if these statutory duties and the NAR-created 1990 Municipal Corporations Act do not exist, while councillors take the following oath: “I hereby declare that I take said office and will duly and faithfully fulfil the duties thereof.”

But of course, taking oaths, in high or low places, in this country does not really matter. What assurance do citizens have that these enthusiastic candidates will abide by this oath and be effective?

In fact, both UNC and PNM have returned some councillors whose service reputation is reputedly zero. And this, when in a meeting last year with Minister Kazim Hosein and councillors, PNM councillor Robert Parris claimed, “There will be no room for crapauds in the 2019 local government elections.” From complaints over Sangre Grande Corporation, the headline read: “Residents feel cheated by councillors.” Another headline: Broken local government promises.”

Last week in a television poll, 90 per cent said they “never saw” their local councillor during the term. I never saw mine, Darren Winchester, even after sending him a written complaint. It is time for voters to have greater control over these elected councillors. Corporations should widely publicise their monthly meetings and invite burgesses to attend and speak up, as well. Make our democracy work.

Earlier this year, there were complaints by the CEO of Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo Corporation: “Late financial statements, understaffing, lack of funding, corruption, no financial statements since 2005.”

The protracted tensions between corporations’ CEOs and elected councils, well known, erupted in 2006 at the Tunapuna/Piarco Corporation. This necessitated an emergency JSC hearing which I chaired. From meetings with other corporations, the firecracker recommendation to put CEPEP and URP under regional corporations was stalled.

What is the status of Section 77, which states: "There shall be raised, levied, collected and paid to such corporation from January 1991 from house and business owners…an annual rate of tax not exceeding ten percent of the annual rateable value of such premises"?

How effective is the regional co-ordinating committee empowered to “ensure effectiveness in management and coordination of operations” and service delivery to citizens? Minister Hosein, whose ministry is part this committee, recently complained about its performance.

Two years ago, PM Dr Keith Rowley publicly lashed out at corruption in garbage collection contracts. Local Government Minister Kazim Hosein lashed out against “corrupt building inspectors who draw plans that they then approve.”

This minister has himself noted the widespread corruption across regional corporations emerging from audited financial reports.

And the government now wants to allow these corporations to collect and spend their own taxes!

At a joint select committee meeting early this year, several serious financial breaches were noted, for example, the irregular hiring of 300 people, a $50,000 cheque paid to people who didn’t supply the promised services, etc. Just last month, a Ministry of Local Government audit revealed extensive fraud in these corporations, particularly in the irregular hiring of “gangster contractors.”

Minister Hosein found similar dirt at Princes Town Regional Corporation last February. Corruption and inefficiency allegations also blew out through JSC hearings with San Juan Laventille Corporation, Sangre Grande Corporation, Chaguanas Corporation, etc. Complaints of various kinds against local government are countless. “Walking through Corinth, Ste Madeleine is now unsettling as the stench from rotting garbage has not been picked up for over one week,” complained residents. A Newsday editorial complained: "The institutional neglect of roadways that serve distant towns and villages is so common that it has become accepted as a new normal."

An Express editorial added: All this the talk about local government reform must seem like pie-in-the-sky for several rural communities who suffer from lack of basic facilities and broken infrastructure. And don’t talk about the increase in countryside praedial larceny, especially with the hundreds of additional municipal police.

This is an old problem. Much of it was expected to be cured by the 1990 act. And one wonders how effective the new political candidates will be within this dysfunctional system.The noisy campaign and promises rage on, but we are not hearing about the specific services required from the Regional Corporation 1990 Act. Corruption is bad enough. But coupled with widespread ineffectiveness, it compels one to ask, quite frankly, what exactly do these councillors do? And how will an increase in their pay, or collecting their own taxes help improve services to their citizens? Will full-time tenure help?

Of course, councillors, UNC members particularly, have their own complaints. especially about lack of funding and biased allocations. UNC chairmen together claimed that government has either refused or neglected to release allocated funds for fixing pot holes, box drains, clearing water ways., etc. The treasury is strained, replied government.

While in Opposition, PNM MPs Camille Regis-Robinson and Marlene McDonald repeatedly accused the UNC government of biased allocations. You see the problem.

Is central government control over elected councillors too overbearing or justified? The minister has power to approve council meetings. The minister reserves power to approve council budget, then finance minister to approve, then minister may make amendments, etc.

Section 109(2) states: The corporation may collect on behalf of government such fees, rate and taxes….and may retain a portion as the finance minister may determine. Even surplus funds must be approved by minister before spending.

Of course, there is the Exchequer and Audit Act governing taxpayers’ money. But there is also the concept of devolution, half-heartedly practised here, for a body of elected councillors, except that so far, the existing fraud and corruption damages the democratic theory.

Is there room for a reform compromise?

Given the overriding powers of the central government and CEOs over elected councillors, it may appear a democratic anomaly, a convoluted kind of internal colonialism. The anomaly has been tolerated by several governments, only to find them complaining when in opposition.

Municipal corporations virtually operate as departments of central government.

Among the fundamental reforms proposed is a fixed annual allocation for each municipality, constitutionally enshrined with strict controls, on the basis of population, social geography, developmental projections etc, and with an appeal tribunal similar to what the Tobago House of Assembly has. The policy of “collect your own tax and spend” in the present circumstances is courting disaster.

Whether it is councillors’ ineffectiveness or central government’s inefficiency, the overall result is that taxpaying citizens are frustrated, not well served through the Municipal Corporations Act, and it appears that the new candidates seem innocently campaigning their way into a kingdom of eunuchs.

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