National Review

Closer to the people

Every administration since the first Ingraham administration, which implemented local government in the Family Islands in 1996, has promised local government for New Providence, but none has yet delivered.

And, according to the current minister responsible for local government, Clay Sweeting, though the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) pledged in its “Blueprint for Change” to “create a local government regime in New Providence”, and stated in the Speech from the Throne it will “work towards the finalization of a Local Government Act for New Providence”, this is not now a priority for the Davis administration.

“My view is that we really need to ensure that the inefficiencies in the Family Islands are addressed,” said Sweeting when we asked him on Monday about local government for New Providence.

“You don’t want to bring in local government (for New Providence) when you have so many inefficiencies in the Family Islands in regards to funding – being able to operate properly because currently, the Family Island local councils are only able to pay bills so they can’t really function as they should; so they don’t really have excess funding to help shape their communities, which we are looking at doing in providing them with revenue-raising powers.”

In the absence of any great public agitation, we should not expect that this issue will receive any front-burner attention from the current crew in office.

And while many New Providence residents have a great deal of complaints about what is and is not happening in their communities, they do not generally push for decentralized government to help deliver greater efficiencies.

Rise Bahamas, an advocacy and public awareness building group started by Terneille Burrows and a few other activists, is working to build awareness around local government for New Providence.

“It will bring government closer to the people. It will allow for us to have representatives that come directly from the people in terms of the voting process that’s proposed,” Burrows said yesterday.

“These would be representatives that come from the communities which they seek to serve. … It would provide greater accessibility and greater input in the process of governing on a community and district level.”

Rise Bahamas does not feel there is a need to waste time starting from scratch in examining how local government could work.

It is thus seeking to raise awareness around the well thought out and researched report delivered to the Minnis administration three years ago by the Advisory Committee on the Introduction of Local Government to New Providence.

Sadly, the work of many civic-minded Bahamians with professional qualifications in varied fields often amounts to wasted efforts when administrations change.

The work of the committee that was drafting a National Development Plan under the Christie administration is the strongest example.

The local government report was completed by a cross-section of respected 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.

Attorney and then-Senator Ranard Henfield (chairman); 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.

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.”

We reported on their work two years ago – a year after they presented their report to then-minister responsible for local government, Renward Wells.

After our story, Wells said he was concerned that if implemented as proposed, the plan for local government for New Providence would give local government officials too much power.

We believe his view was unfortunate, selfish and short-sighted.

Aubry, of ORG, who is working with the Rise Bahamas campaign, addressed the question of whether local government would threaten the authority of MPs when he spoke with National Review on Monday.

“The discussion of whether this will somehow threaten the MPs, in truth, it’s very complementary because the MPs’ role really wasn’t originally envisioned as having to deal with the day-to-day local things in your constituency,” he said.

“It was to see what your constituency feels and thinks about national issues and then convey them at a national level in the House of Assembly.

“So if you go about that, it actually makes the MPs’ job more achievable and it gives the citizens of the community [assurance] that their voice will be heard in ways that they can see and understand and benefit from, and I think that’s the heart of what we’re trying to push out.

“And so, the either or conversation is not a good one because it shouldn’t be either or. It actually should be we can do both.”

Fields told National Review yesterday it “was a very big disappointment that the former administration did not live up to its promise of local government for New Providence”.

He added, “A tremendous amount of time, resources and effort was put into formulating a plan to introduce local government to New Providence. It was all torpedoed when the minister responsible announced that he was concerned that it would diminish the power of the MP.

“The advisory committee collectively sighed, realizing that the report would not even get to Cabinet for consideration, let alone approval.

“Had the report been read in earnest, the minister would have seen that a clear distinction was made between what the duties of the legislature and local government would be and essentially all Cabinet portfolios remained intact.

“Until we have strong local government in the Family Islands and New Providence, we will never make the transition from subject to citizen. Until that transformation is made, our capacity to participate in the development of our communities and the nation as a whole will be stymied.

“If ‘power’ is shared, the resource pool for bringing reform and resolution to our many social and economic concerns is expanded, and will not remain solely the responsibility of a few men and women.”

MODEL

The report of the advisory committee, which never saw the light of day, is comprehensive and calls for “strong local government”.

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.

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

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

“More specifically, the council would be the policy-making 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 report pointed 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. These include: Property taxes; traffic and environmental fines; nomination fees; community park usage fees; roadside signage fees; impound fees; garbage collection; ordinances and delivery of postal packets fees.

The committee said 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.

WHAT TO EXPECT

We agree with Rise Bahamas that the work of the advisory committee should not be set aside, but built upon in the Davis administration’s efforts to fulfill this important campaign pledge.

We understand that governments must prioritize issues upon coming to office, but if better organized and more efficiently governed New Providence communities — where the vast majority of the population resides – are not viewed as important, that would be most disappointing.

However, given previous administrations’ failure to make local government for the island a reality, it would not be that surprising.

We hope Sweeting’s tone on the issue is not reflective of what we can expect from the new day government this term.

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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