Fri | Sep 17, 2021

Editorial | No frothy report on Portmore

Published:Friday | September 10, 2021 | 12:05 AM

The Government deserves commendation on two counts: for the speed with which it set a parliamentary committee to work reviewing its campaign promise to convert Portmore from a municipal region to a parish, and, second, for the urgency with which that committee undertook the task. The election was just a year ago.

Last week, that joint select committee of members of the House and the Senate – minus MPs of the Opposition People’s National Party – agreed on the broad framework of the report they intend to send to the legislature. The governing Jamaica Labour Party members have all signalled their support of Portmore becoming Jamaica’s 15th parish.

We look forward to that document, which is to be drafted by the committee’s chairman, the former energy and technology minister, Andrew Wheatley. What will now be closely scrutinised is the case the majority makes for the decision, including, significantly, what they believe Portmore can do as a parish that is not possible as a city municipality, Portmore’s current designation under the law.

A sprawling conglomeration of communities across the harbour to the west of Kingston, Portmore’s population of nearly 200,000 (people who live there claim it’s more) is close to 40 per cent of all the residents of St Catherine, the parish of which the municipality is a part. Jamaicans like to point out that Portmore has more people than several English-speaking Caribbean countries, and also contend that it has the highest per capita concentration of university graduates in the region.

SOLE CITY MUNICIPALITY

Portmore was granted municipality status in 2003 but now operates under the Local Governance Act of 2016, which regulates parish-bounded municipal corporations. It is the island’s sole city municipality. The community, however, isn’t called a city, which would require a separate charter.

A basic interpretation of the powers afforded to city municipalities and the corporations suggests that there is very little that Portmore would be able to do as a stand-alone parish than it can’t now do as a ‘city’. Except, maybe, for receiving funds directly from the central government as a portion of property taxes and motor vehicle licences attributable to the parish.

The corporations and city municipalities can make by-laws and are expected to deliver certain community services. Both municipal corporations and city municipalities can impose some regulatory/service fees, but neither can levy general taxes. Nor can they raise debt, except it were under the specific oversight and direction of the central government.

City municipalities, from the citizens’ perspective, have an apparent advantage. Their mayors are chosen by direct elections, while those for the corporations are chosen by their peers from among the members of the council’s majority party. Municipality can also be subjected to citizen-instigated impeachment. In such an event, sufficient voters have to sign a petition to the local government minister, who, if he determines the complaints to be credible after an investigation, then asks the national Parliament to vote to remove the mayor.

ROBUST REVIEW

On reflection, Dr Wheatley’s committee will have served us better if, in their deliberations, they interpreted their mandate to be larger than the specifics of Portmore’s parish status. The process demanded another of those periodic shots at local government reform after a robust review of the Local Governance Act and an examination of whether the authorities, as currently structured and operated, can deliver what citizens expect of them. The project could not be approached in any other meaningful way. Talking about traffic snarls and holding out vision of high-rise buildings in Portmore is getting ahead of themselves.

It is quite possible that a hard-driving mayor and council, if they think creatively, will be able to get things done.

But few are, given their subordinate status to the central government and of their councillors to the MPs. What has not happened in Portmore is not because it is not a parish. After all, ramshackle Spanish Town is the capital of St Catherine and seat of the parish’s municipal corporation. The structure and authority of the municipal bodies cause them to attract largely second-rate talent and inept leadership.

It is in this context that the work of Dr Wheatley’s committee can, if properly approached, prove important. If this is not the way they pursued the exercise, the committee should delay the report and extend its deliberations. Portmore, as a result of that kind of thoughtful approach to the process, might still be recommended to become a parish. Dr Wheatley’s committee could even breathe new life into the concept of local government and the municipal corporations. They might, if he does a good job of it, even make believers of this newspaper.

A frothy report, though, won’t cut it.