Martin Henry | Municipal corporations - and they’re off!
Renamed and extended from three to four years, the new municipal corporations are off. But off to what?
Most councillors (or is that municipal corporation representatives?), mayors, and deputy mayors were sworn in last Thursday. And their boss in the Cabinet of central government, Big Minister, said, starting tomorrow, they are to be trained in their roles and responsibilities and the functions of local government. How's that going with the cross-party conflict of last week? And how condescending! How come we never hear of similar training for parliamentarians (I would make a very safe bet that the majority of them are quite ignorant of the Jamaican Constitution) and training for Cabinet ministers?
Flushed with electoral victory, the JLP, precariously holding the reins of central government, was very provoking last week regarding the swearing in of local government officials.
Why on earth would the party's councillors in the 5-5 tied St Thomas Corporation surge ahead to appoint both the mayor and the deputy mayor from their side when convention - perhaps even the law as well - dictates that in a tie, the party that took the popular vote would take the mayorship and the other would be assigned the deputy mayorship?
To deepen and spread the diss to the opposition party, the prime minister, last Wednesday, went ahead with the signing of a new Partnership for Jamaica agreement. I am deliberately keeping the old name here because the Opposition, with a great deal of justification, I believe, objected to the insertion of the political campaign slogan word 'prosperous' into the name of the agreement and stayed away from the signing.
Considering the purpose of the agreement, why provoke the Opposition to abstain from signing and to disengage from participation when bipartisanship is so vital to the partnership?
And starting with the governor general, why did the other participants and partners, all non-partisans, not call out the poor decision of the ruling party and insist on restoring the bipartisan aspects of the partnership if the partnership is really going to flourish? Was it these same 'civil-society' organisations that had refused to continue with the agreement under the last PNP government over the NHT-Outameni scandal?
And with all the talk of the role of local government in development, it would have been symbolically significant if the partnership signing had been delayed to bring on board a couple of sworn-in reps from the association of local government representatives.
The party dragon roared in the municipal corporation of St Elizabeth. I suspect lazy media are giving us only a fraction of the story. But as we got it, the Belmont Road JLP overturned the decisions of its majority caucus in the St Elizabeth Corporation for mayor and deputy mayor and imposed its own choices as a "compromise" following protests in the parish against the caucus choices. How far are we going to let protest politics take us on this downhill road, overturning due process?
The big pioneering 'corporation', the KSAC, dating back to 1923, did not have swearings-in last week. There was bipartisan agreement to the postponement while they await a pending magisterial recount in the Rae Town division. "As both the JLP and the PNP respect due process in Jamaica's strong democracy, both parties have agreed to await the outcome of the magisterial recount," their joint statement said. How civil. How sensible. What went wrong in St Thomas?
The KSAC is just seven years shy of its century. Does nobody want answers to the question about how well this centenarian corporation has performed vis-·-vis regular parish councils as we rush to rebrand everything 'corporation'? I have had the same sort of question for the Portmore Municipal Council, boundaries and voting confusion aside, what has the experiment with a directly elected mayor, the only one in the country, delivered? There is great faith in the great benefits of direct election of public officials like mayor and prime minister. Well, we have a live case to study.
As the KSAC reps remained unsworn, the Monarch of the Seas, came calling, the first cruise ship to call on the port of Kingston in three years, and bearing 2,700 passengers and 800 crew. Berths at all the cruise ship piers on the tourism north coast were filled with other calling ships. So Kingston got a 'bly'.
Even with that deft diplomatic spin by the Spanish chargÈ d'affaires welcoming the Spanish cruise liner, and that political spin by our own minister of tourism, it simply is not cool that the ship had to dock at the private Kingston Wharves, which, blessedly, had space. The city itself has no public pier, the Victoria Pier having long been abandoned to rot.
Kingston is culturally, historically, and geographically a fabulously rich city. But it is dirty, disorderly, and dangerous. Its tourist attractions are pitiful.
Can you imagine if Port Royal had been developed as a heritage and history tourism site? Can you imagine if a railway service could haul visitors out to Spanish Town and even Linstead and back? Can you imagine if the city was signed for heritage sites? Can you imagine if the Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley, Kingston, sites were seriously tourism-ready? Can you picture an interactive Bolt Museum? What if the downtown district was fit for a walking tour or drive-around tour?
Kingston is not ready for serious tourism of any brand. Not even business-travellers tourism, for which it is now best prepared, such as it is.
Serious local government could do so much to make the city a tourism destination and at the same time a nice place for citizens to live and work in.
The case of Clarendon is instructive as to why this may never happen. Councillor Winston Maragh waxed warm in his swearing-in speech as mayor of May Pen about a fire station for the Vere Plains. Everything has been developed over many years for the establishment of the fire station. The only thing needed now is the funding!
And where does Mayor Maragh expect to get this funding? He will be stretching his hand to central government. And quite likely drawing it back empty-handed. The fire services across the parishes are a disaster! The commercial and residential properties in southern Clarendon must pay for the fire protection of their own properties, and the corporation must get up off its behind and go out and collect land taxes adjusted to realistic rates.
The municipal corporations are going to need autonomy, money, and, from these, capacity to discharge their remaining responsibilities.
The dead hand of central government must be lifted. Big Daddy McKenzie is offering some hope in his soundings; but not enough.
And the money for the efficient operations of the corporations can be found more readily than we are led to believe by those who calculate the purpose and value of local government purely as an economic utility. Layered government and a division and balancing of powers is important for democratic governance to work.
For the money, in the first instance, the corporations must charge realistic rates that allow cost recovery, plus modest profit for every service that can be so priced and sold.
Second, some of the money generated by economic activity within the particular parishes should be directly retained by the parishes in an equitable allocation formula between them and central government. A real opportunity for bipartisan agreement. Can you imagine what would happen for Kingston and St Andrew tourism, for example, if the KSAC had a revenue stake in the matter?
But as everybody knows, not all parishes are equal. The Local Government Equalisation Fund must be removed from the direct control of the ministry and minister of local government and managed by a statutory body, created by law but with the autonomy of bodies like the ECJ, the OCG, and INDECOM-creatures of Parliament in origin but not in function.
If the shiny new municipal corporations can break with the depressing history of their predecessor parish councils, we may yet see more voters turning out next time.