Tuesday, January 16, 2018

More power, not less, for local govt

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Mark Fraser

Exercises in the name of local government reform, now underway, appear to be leading in unpromising directions, at least for the foreseeable future of local government. This would be a disappointing outcome for what have been advertised as “public consultations on the transformation and modernisation of local government”.

One ominous sign of things not to come by way of greater empowerment of local authorities is the presence at and active participation in the consultations by Local Government Minister Surujrattan Rambachan.

A former Chaguanas mayor, Dr Rambachan should be sensitive to the danger that his being there, and his interventions inevitably defensive of his present position, could cast an unhelpfully long central-government shadow over deliberations.

At the March 6 launch of the consultations, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s address had praised that “hard-working Minister”. Citing her own political start-up as a county council alderman, however, she urged attention to “increasing the financial and human resources” to local government, and to authorising corporations to "borrow for self-sustaining projects”.

In terms that encouraged hopes for a bigger local government role, she said: “We want to look at the duties carried out by the central government, and hear from you if some of them should be given at the local government level”.

At the Port of Spain City Hall last week, an answer came pointedly from Mayor Louis Lee Sing. Parking regulation and enforcement in the capital he identified as a function that should be performed by the City Council, rather than as now by the central government.

Following a City Council tradition dating from colonial times, the Mayor pushed for more local self-determination. He appeared, however, less than encouraged by present reality and future promise.

The dreaded “wrecker” parking enforcement, as carried out by the T&T Police Service, has been taking place with neither reference to the City (which receives bitter business complaints) nor involvement by City Police. Financial benefit from collection of the fines accrues largely to the central government.

Mr Lee Sing voiced pessimism for the enjoyment of greater autonomy for present-day leadership of the Port of Spain City Council. Indeed, he charged the central government with seeking to run the capital city itself, effectively denying a role for local government.

The PNM-affiliated Mayor’s dismay over the capital city’s lack of a free hand, uninhibited by central authority, to raise funds and to hire and fire staff is evidently shared by the COP-affiliated Arima Mayor Ghassan Youseff.

With reform in the air, the time should be just right for leaders at those levels, across political lines, to press for more power to run city and borough affairs. It should help their cause that the central government’s track record encourages no one to think it can do a better job.