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McPherse Thompson | Reform urgent more than ever

Published:Thursday | November 17, 2016 | 11:00 AM

Jamaica's two major political parties, the Jamaica Labour Party and the People's National Party, the primary competitors in the forthcoming local government elections, have continuously committed to empower people at the grass-roots level to participate in governance of their communities, only to revert to business at usual following the polls.

Attempts have been made for at least the last 17 years to fundamentally transform the local government system to essentially make local authorities more autonomous and responsive to their citizenry.

But as we head into another poll with essentially the same promises by the old guard, Jamaica doesn't appear to be any closer to achieving those goals, at least not in the eyes of many of the electorate, either because of a failure or unwillingness on the part of the political parties at the parliamentary level and the participants at the level of local governance.

As elsewhere, many people appear to share the view that, without administrative and financial autonomy, it will be very difficult for local government to carry out its constitutional mandate to the people at the community level.

It should be noted that the Constitution (Amendment) (Local Government) Act, in keeping with recommendations made in the August 1993 Report on the Constitution of Jamaica, and the May 1995 final report of the Joint Select Committee of the Houses of Parliament on Constitutional and Electoral Reform, was not passed until sometime last year.

That despite the parties acknowledging that passage of the bill is a "basic foundation" for ensuring the continuity of the local government system and the benefits that local governance brings to communities and the citizenry.

The parties and the political and administrative arms of the local authority also appear to perceive local government as the more viable instrument for rural transformation and for the delivery of social services to the people in localised regions.

However, despite these divisional representatives' strategic importance to national development and the fact that their roles and responsibilities cover a number of health, environmental and developmental issues, to many people, their contribution has been minimal.

Analysts agree that the ineffectiveness of local government thus far derives partly, if not primarily, from the excessive central-government control and the fact that their functions and responsibilities have in some cases been hijacked by members of parliament or state agencies.

 

ROLES AND FUNCTIONS

 

The role and functions of the local authority is a multifunctional one, in that they are empowered to make by-laws, regulations and rules for the good governance of the parishes over which they have jurisdiction.

As the Ministry of Local Government notes, among the specific responsibilities of the councils are:

- Developing, managing and maintaining infrastructure and public facilities such as parochial roads, water supplies, drains and gullies, parks, recreational centres, markets, abattoirs, pounds, cemeteries, transportation centres, public sanitary conveniences and public beaches.

- Provision of local services such as poor relief, public cleansing, public health, street lighting.

- Support of national policies/development programmes at the local level.

- Spearhead plans and initiatives for the orderly, balanced and sustainable development of the parish as a whole, and major towns in particular, and for boosting economic activity and local wealth creation within the parish.

These are not trivial areas to be treated as irrelevant by persons who choose not to exercise their democratic right and for which the political actors and administrators can just pass the buck. These require action that will redound to the benefit of communities.

Voters need to take stock of the remit of local government and choose whomever they believe will deliver when they go to the polls in the next two weeks.

Public cleansing is just one of many bugbears for communities across the island, not just in Manchester, Clarendon and St Elizabeth, as one of the parties suggested, but in areas such as St Catherine, where garbage has not been collected for weeks.

With the passage of legislation in 2015, three years after the last second-tier election, local government was entrenched in the Constitution. Will the government and by extension the parties now make the necessary resources available to the local authorities so they can undertake their mandate?

- McPherse Thompson is Assistant Business Editor at The Gleaner and holds a PhD in Political Science. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mcpherse.thompson@gleanerjm.com.