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A greedy stranglehold on power

Renward Wells.

The person charged with driving the fulfillment of the prime minister’s election promise to deliver local government to New Providence seems more concerned about his power and not the Free National Movement’s mantra — “It’s the People’s Time”.

Minister responsible for local government Renward Wells recently went on record to say he was concerned that if implemented as proposed, the plan would give local government officials too much power.

Responding to Wells’ statement carried in The Nassau Guardian on Monday, one party insider declared: “Wow, he completely misses the point.”

We happen to agree.

First of all, from what we have seen in the 2019 report of the advisory committee on the introduction of local government to New Providence, there would be a clear separation of powers.

Our inability to get things done in this country is largely because there is no shared power.

Does fixing a pothole or mowing an easement have to come from a minister?

If Wells wants to fix potholes or mow grass then he should run for local government.

The Nassau Guardian secured a copy of the report a couple weeks ago. We have reported on it extensively in National Review.

The document, which reportedly sits on Minister Wells’ desk months after the committee presented it, has not been considered by Cabinet.

Indeed, we understand that the

committee has not yet made a presentation to either the prime minister or Cabinet.

Committee Chairman Senator Ranard Henfield revealed in a statement yesterday that the committee has not been invited to sit with the minister or Cabinet since the report was completed almost a year ago.

This is incredible.

The report, entitled “Delivering On A Promise: Participatory Governance”, appears to be dead in the water.

With upcoming local government elections in May, communities on New Providence will not be included in the exercise as outlined in the report for 2020.

The minister has shunned the committee’s recommendations.

“What is being proposed for New Providence is a mayoral system where you have a direct election for an individual to be your mayor, kind of like how you directly elect a member of Parliament,” Wells said.

He added, “…There is a call to split New Providence into about five or seven districts. Right now we have about 23 or 25 members of Parliament in New Providence. And if you split this up into five where you are directly electing an individual, you could have a mayor who would have gotten 14,500 or 15,000 votes to be a mayor.

“And then you would have at least three or four constituencies in that mayoral district of which members of Parliament are sitting making laws, and you have a gentleman who would have received 15,000 more votes than the people to whom he has to answer.

“I want you to think about that. One thing you know about democracy is he who has more votes traditionally should have more say.”

Wells’ comments are absurd and verify that some of our leaders are not about the people, but themselves. It’s shocking that he actually acknowledges this.

By his warped logic, the ministers who sit in the Senate — Attorney General Carl Bethel and Labour Minister Dion Foulkes — should have less say around the Cabinet table than their elected colleagues.

By his warped logic, MPs who received more votes than their colleagues in Parliament, or who have more registered voters in their constituencies should have “more say”.

That would mean Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller, whose constituency had 6,711 registered voters in 2017, should have more say than Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, whose Killarney constituency had 6,372 registered voters.

Is Wells suggesting that Bains Town MP Travis Robinson with his constituency’s 4,306 registered voters is more important than Miriam Emmanuel of MICAL, whose constituency had 1,348 voters?

His reasoning makes no sense.

That he is afraid that local government as proposed by the committee would loosen ministers’ grip on power is quite telling and ought not go unnoticed by the people, who were promised it is their time.

That he is brazen enough to declare this to the media shows a level of arrogance unmatched around the Cabinet table.

It is important to recognize that the local report was not a partisan effort.

The work was completed by a cross-section of serious-minded citizens who worked on a non partisan basis giving of their time to an effort that would do much to enhance our communities and improve the quality of life of residents.

Dr. Nicolette Bethel (University of The Bahamas professor); Errol Bethel (former parliamentary commissioner); Matt Aubry (Organization for Responsible Governance); Khrystle Rutherford-Ferguson (Bahamas Chamber of Commerce) and Ed Fields (director, Downtown Nassau Partnership) are just some of the bright minds who were on the committee.

They conducted extensive consultation with the citizenry, civil society, the opposition, media and individuals with institutional knowledge (that is, Family Island practitioners).

The end goal, they stated, was to propose a model of local government that is suitable to a modern Bahamas and that would empower the people of The Bahamas to get more involved in their communities.

“We found that the New South Wales legislation is ideal and that the Jamaican legislation would also be great for benchmarking,” the committee concluded.

The committee said, “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.”

As we opined in our earlier piece, the recommendations, if properly implemented, would help make New Providence a more orderly and efficiently managed society.

Proposal

We wonder whether Wells has carefully read the report from the committee.

If he has then he misses the boat entirely on what was presented and the rationale behind it.

It is clear that Wells does not see the difference between local government meeting the needs of the community and national government taking care of the larger concerns, like finance, education, health, tourism, environment and the rest of the Cabinet portfolios.

As we reported two weeks ago, the committee proposed that New Providence be divided into five districts, preferably with socio-economic parity between districts.

“We strongly recommend introducing a mayor and council model so that there is a separation of powers in the operation of the system,” the committee said in its report.

“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).”

The report adds, “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.”

It further notes, “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.”

Perhaps anticipating concerns of Wells and other colleagues, the committee said: “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.”

When he spoke to the media a few days ago, Wells also raised the issue of local government funding, noting, “The requirements that are also being asked is that there be government taxes in the form of real property tax that would go directly to a local government board here in New Providence.”

He should also have noted that other recommended means of funding local government on New Providence are traffic and environmental fines; nomination fees; community park usage fees; roadside signage fees; impound fees for vehicles parked in no parking zones; garbage collection fees; fines from ordinances and fees associated with the delivery of postal packets.

The committee recommends that Cabinet consider existing expenditure on New Providence that can be allocated to the Ministry of Local Government to empower residents to improve their communities and quality of life.

Local government issues are issues that ultimately have to be addressed — if not by local government then by central government. The point here is that the government is now obligated to come up with money to fund the needs of the various constituencies, although it does not always do a good job at addressing those needs.

The funding proposals recommended by the committee are certainly worth considering.

Wells also noted in the recent interview: “What is being proposed for New Providence, if we do that, we would have to go back to Parliament and change the act.”

We do not get the point of highlighting the obvious.

No matter what proposal the government wanted to go with for local government on New Providence — if it truly had the political will to go with any proposal at all — it would require legislative change.

Influence

We remind Wells that the committee did not form itself.

The FNM in its manifesto said it “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 Minnis administration followed up by committing in the Speech from the Throne to “establish a committee to look into the implementation of local government in New Providence”.

Nearly a year ago, the prime minister told reporters the report was completed.

Minnis said, “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.”

The committee has advised that the Minnis administration advance the New Providence implementation exercise with care, not to repeat the shortfalls of the Family Island system which lacks regular capacity building opportunities, strategic development planning at the district level, economic sustainability measures, adherence to good governance and the principles of public life, among other deficiencies.

But let’s not kid ourselves. It is clear the FNM’s promise to deliver local government for the island this term is not likely to materialize.

A major reason for that seems to be the enormous influence Wells wields over the prime minister, who has rewarded him for his unflinching support when the daggers were in his back during a tremendously tumultuous time in opposition not too long ago.

The country is doomed if Wells’ thinking is the thinking that prevails.

That only he and those who sit around that table have the answers and are the only ones capable of governing our affairs at the local level is plainly preposterous.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.

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