Tuesday, May 26, 2020
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Whose time is it?

Renward Wells.

Without question, centralized government is at the core of our political malaise.

It is evident all around us. The neglect we find in the Family Islands, communities strewn with litter, public spaces left unattended for months or longer and the blight derelict buildings and vehicles create in our neighborhoods are all evidence of why we need to empower communities to help themselves.

A galvanizing plank of the Minnis-led FNM bid for election in 2017 was the promise of local government for New Providence.

“The FNM believes that the deepening of our democracy requires the immediate introduction and implementation of local government in New Providence so that our citizens could likewise participate in the governance of their communities,” the party said in its manifesto.

An advisory committee was set up and led by activist and now Senator Ranard Henfield, and about two years of research resulted in a report that was forwarded to Minister of Local Government Renward Wells.

What has become of the report?

The committee was established by then Minister of Transport and Local Government Frankie Campbell. Sources say that Minister Campbell was an ardent supporter of the initiative, but that things changed dramatically once Minister Wells took the reins.

Is Wells concerned that the mayors who would be elected to five districts on New Providence would become more “transformative” than Cabinet ministers?

The silence from Minister Wells with regard to the promotion of local government for New Providence begs the question: “Is a pivotal promise of the FNM being thwarted because a minister of government is more concerned about his power than giving power to the people?”

Has the grand promise of “it’s the people’s time”, been pushed aside for “it’s the minister’s time”?

National Review has obtained a copy of the committee’s report presented to Wells months ago.

We understand that the report has not even made it to Cabinet as yet.

The report is comprehensive and calls for “strong local government”, and is seemingly well-thought-out.

It divides New Providence into five districts.

Each district includes a cross section of socioeconomic groups and is to be funded by an allocation of the property tax collected from the district. Each district will be “managed” by an elected mayor and a group of council members that are representative of each of the districts’ wards.

The responsibility of the districts will include collection of garbage, removal of derelict vehicles, maintenance of parks and easements, demolition of abandoned buildings, repairing potholes and even issuance of traffic tickets by community police.

Report

The report states: “It is being proposed by the advisory committee that New Providence be divided into five districts, preferably with socio-economic parity between districts.

“A less desirable option would be dividing districts based on the number of registered voters. For an inclusive local government structure with a focus on sustainability, we strongly suggest proceeding on the basis of socio-economic parity.

“We strongly recommend introducing a mayor and council model so that there is a separation of powers in the operation of the system.

A map showing the five districts of New Providence that are proposed in a report on local government.

“More specifically, the council would be the policymaking body whilst the mayor would have responsibility for the administrative body – inclusive of full-time staff to address the district needs on a daily basis.

“To run as a council member, the individual would have to live within the community. To run as mayor, the individual would have to live within the district (the collection of all the communities in a local government region).

“We propose ongoing training throughout the term of office for all council members and mayors.

“The well trained council would be required to debate local issues and pass resolutions with the oversight and guidance of a central government figure.

“We propose that this central government oversight figure be an assistant deputy director of local government who would apprise the minister responsible for local government on council deliberations and ensure that all councils are apprised of government policies, regulations and laws.

“The various working relationships between councils, mayors, the administrative staff, members of Parliament and central government are crucial for the success of local governments worldwide.

“As each of the five districts would be comprised of four to six constituencies, it is being proposed that the respective councils be constituted of an odd number of council members from the various parts of the district.

“Additionally, it is recommended that committees be established for councils/mayors and the members of Parliament in their districts to network and complement each other.

“This local government structure may invite Cabinet to make a pronouncement on the role of MPs in light of the introduction of this new tier of governance.

“The mayor, who acts as a city manager or chief councilor of sorts, would receive his or her instructions from the Local Government Act and the council’s resolutions to mobilize the Mayor’s Office to carry out the council’s directives.

“The mayor does not determine the vision or agenda for the district. He merely manages and carries out the council’s resolutions and mandates.

“The mayor would clearly need to be an individual with exceptional skills for management and execution.

“The Mayor’s Office, which we strongly recommend should be full-time with professional staff, can be organized into departments to address local concerns and the council’s focus…”

The committee says its findings suggest that a strong local government serves as a training ground for national leaders as political parties and the electorate would get to gauge a potential national candidate’s commitment, vision, effectiveness and support base while they serve at the local level.

Funding

The report points out that becoming financially self-sufficient is a vital component for the success of local government.

The commission’s revenue team considered a list of revenue sources for local government, the report states. These include (quoting directly from the report):

1. Property taxes — Research shows that globally one of the most significant sources of revenue that local governments receive is from property taxes.

In fact, the Jamaican local government system receives 100 percent of real property taxes. The committee proposes that a meaningful and fixed percentage of real property tax be allocated to local government.

 2. Traffic and environmental fines — The committee proposes that each district manages the “enforcement” of traffic infractions and levies for environmental violations (such as bush mechanics, dumping and illegal burning of waste).

Innovative technology (like drones), traffic cameras and online ticketing could be outsourced by local governments for maximum effectiveness and minimal costs.

3. Nomination fees – The committee anticipates a large number of persons offering themselves as candidates for New Providence’s local government elections.

To encourage registration, the non-refundable nomination fee being proposed is considerably low in comparison to that of national elections but sufficient enough to be a source of revenue for the districts, which can assist in the cost of the initial debates and promotion of the elections.

4. Community park usage fees — It is proposed that each district would manage and coordinate usage of parks, beaches and other public spaces for medium to large scale events, thus collecting usage fees to maintain the facilities.

If the residents are to see and touch the improvements in the quality of life that local government can afford them, then properly managed community parks, CCTV in strategic locations in the districts, exercise and play areas, public restroom facilities and picnic areas would be an ideal feature.

5. Roadside signage fees — The committee proposes that a mayor’s stamp be required to be affixed to every temporary sign/billboard erected in each district to show that the fee has been paid and the signage approved for erection in the district.

“The installation and removal of the same can be done by the mayor’s grounds staff. This would be a lucrative source of revenue and means of regulation as there is a proliferation of advertisements plastered in residential communities that are left long after the events or promotions have transpired,” the report states.

“Any sign identified without the appropriate stamp would automatically be removed and the entity responsible fined.”

6. Impound fees — It is proposed that districts be allowed to tow and impound vehicles parked in no parking zones, abandoned vehicles on the roadside after a specified period, vehicles being sold on the side of the road and vehicles parked in disabled parking spots without the necessary decal/permit.

The committee recommends that a single impound lot on New Providence be established for use by all districts to reduce costs. The revenue from the fines and towing would go back to the relevant district from which the car was towed.

“This would ensure compliance and enforcement of the laws. Unfortunately, there has been a blatant disregard for no parking areas and handicap parking spots island-wide. This proposal would serve as an instant source of revenue and a great means of regulation/enforcement,” the report states.

7. Garbage collection — The committee proposes that garbage collection be a local government service, thereby allowing the costs, budget, management and coordination of the same to be diverted from central government to the relevant local government districts.

8. Ordinances — It is proposed that each district council be able to establish ordinances/by-laws that do not contravene national policy or laws.

For instance, a council may pass an ordinance that prohibits parking on a particular side of the street or for playing loud music between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. without a permit. The fines can be paid at the mayor’s office. This too can be an instant source of revenue and provide for regulation and enforcement at the same time.

9. Delivery of postal packets – It is proposed that each district will benefit from the implementation of a system of delivery of postal packets and from the rental of post office boxes to its residents.

In its preliminary report, the commission says that encouraging community spirit and causing residents to have a “vested interest” in the success of their districts and local government is fundamental.

“According to the advisory committee’s research, this is usually achieved through the economic empowerment of districts. Encouraging district-wide input and shopping locally within your district tends to stimulate local ownership and socio-economic growth within the district,” it adds.

As a way to spur and  sustain local economic development, the commission proposes that the councils have the ability to issue community bonds; introduce local government procurement policies where requests for proposals are sent to local businesses first, inviting them to bid on providing the necessary district services; establish District Heritage Sites and Business Improvement Districts with economic incentives; have the latitude to offer incentives to attract and retain new residents and/or businesses within the districts with ongoing campaigns like “move to and/or invest in the Heritage District of Clifton”; and have District Satellite SBDC offices (Small Business Development Centres) to offer support for small district start-ups.

A theme that emerged during various focus group sessions was that seeing the MP at election time and being left to fend for themselves the rest of the time until the next election was common, the report states.

It adds: “There was a strong sense that people are hungry for greater participation in matters that affect them. They are eager for empowerment, do not want new taxes but want their local government to be funded and transparent, meaning revenue would have to be raised (portion of local business license fees, parking, fees for rental of public spaces, parks, auditoriums for local events, tax on Airbnb rentals in the community if applicable) and in part diverted from other sources. They also wanted the right to collect what funds them on a local basis.”

The report also states: “The advisory committee humbly invites the Cabinet to make a pronouncement in the coming weeks on its decision and commitment to deepening democracy on an historical level during this first time in office.

“The committee is also urging for at least a year to promote the initiative, educate the public and put in place the necessary training and elections process for the prospective candidates so as to ensure successful elections, successful implementation and a sustainable local government.”

The committee says its recommendations, if implemented, would afford the government the indisputable right to tout that it delivered on its campaign promise.

“For the first time in our history, New Providence residents would be able to shape the future development of their communities via duly elected district councils of community leaders whose focus will be to improve the quality of life and participate in solving vexing local community issues,” the report adds.

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After months, local govt report still not before Cabinet

PULL-OUT QUOTES:

“The committee’s recommendations, if implemented, would afford the government the indisputable right to tout that it delivered on its campaign promise. For the first time in our history, New Providence residents would be able to shape the future development of their communities via duly elected district councils of community leaders whose focus will be to improve the quality of life and participate in solving vexing local community issues. — Advisory committee on the introduction of local government to New Providence

“The FNM believes that the deepening of our democracy requires the immediate introduction and implementation of local government in New Providence so that our citizens could likewise participate in the governance of their communities. — FNM MANIFESTO 2017

“My government will provide for a portion of the revenue collected by the district councils to be used to address local needs. My government will establish a committee to look into the implementation of local government in New Providence. — SPEECH FROM THE THRONE 2017

“The decisions that follow may enhance the quality of life in New Providence in the first instance and the enhancement of local government in the Family Islands. — DR. HUBERT MINNIS, APRIL 2019

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