Tue | Nov 28, 2023

WINDOW CLOSING

• Local gov’t elections set to be postponed again • EOJ not ready for February deadline

Published:Sunday | January 29, 2023 | 1:51 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
Brown
Brown
Jamaica last had local government elections in November 2016
Jamaica last had local government elections in November 2016
Montague
Montague
Campbell
Campbell
Both the JLP and the PNP say they are ready for local government elections.
Both the JLP and the PNP say they are ready for local government elections.
Thomas
Thomas
Map showing the proposed parish boundary for Portmore.
Map showing the proposed parish boundary for Portmore.
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The long-postponed local government polls seem headed for another postponement with the country’s electoral authority indicating that the budget needed to execute the elections, which are due by the end of next month, has not yet been approved by the Government.

Speaking with The Sunday Gleaner last week, Director of Elections Glasspole Brown said that even if the funds are approved now, the remaining window left for the Electoral Office of Jamaica to train workers and get ready to oversee the elections by February 27 would be too tight.

The country last had local government elections in November 2016. Constitutionally due every four years, the next polls were postponed in November 2020 for three months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2021, the Parliament extended the delay by a further 12 months, making them due by February 27, 2023.

“For every election cycle, a budget for any impending election is prepared and sent to the Ministry of Finance. The latest one was sent in October 2022. The estimated budget for the local government election is approximately $1.3 billion,” Brown told The Sunday Gleaner.

“Trainers are identified, training locations have been identified and recruitment of workers is ongoing. Training of election day workers have not yet started as budgetary approval is awaited,” he added, noting that in excess of two million Jamaicans are on the latest voter’s list publish last November.

“If the EOJ is to properly prepare – that is, to train at least 30,000 election day workers, we need to do so over at least a three-month period,” he said, emphasing the point that the budgetary support would have had to be in place already for the EOJ to be ready.

Barring the lack of preparedness, for the elections to be held on February 27, Finance Minister Nigel Clarke would need to allocate funds to host them in supplementary estimates this week and an announcement of the date of the polls would have to be made by February 5 at the latest.

With the Representation of the People Act (ROPA) calling for five clear days between announcement and nomination day, this would go up to Friday, February 10. The elections must then be held between 16 and 23 days after nomination day. The 16-day window falls squarely on Monday, February 27 with the 23rd day being Monday, March 6.

Despite ongoing training, the EOJ suggests that if the elections are indeed called for February, it would not be prepared to host the polls, under which 228 divisions are to be contested.

PARTIES WELL ADVANCED

Nonetheless, the island’s two main political parties have indicated that are well advanced with candidate selection. Both the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP) say they each have five divisions to be settled.

JLP chairman Robert Montague dismissed suggestions that the party is not ready for the polls with no visible public campaign activities.

“The matter of budgetary allocation is something that you need to raise with the minister of finance. That is out of my remit,” he said when The Sunday Gleaner raised the point of lack of EOJ funding for the polls. “My job is to get my party ready.”

He added that the JLP’s treasurer and deputies have put in place programmes to raise funds “to fight and to win the local government elections whenever [they are] called”.

Asked if the government and taxpayers would get a better deal from the $1.3 billion budget by twinning the elections with the promised referendum polls, Montague said, “Those weighty constitutional matters and considerations are best discussed with the minister with responsibility for constitutional and legal affairs. My job, as chairman of the JLP, which is not a government position, is to get the party ready, fighting fit, and to organise the celebrations when we win the local government elections across the length and breadth of Jamaica.”

PNP General Secretary Dr Dayton Campbell said his party was also getting ready for the polls.

“For it to make that deadline, we know it has to be announced by February 5. So what we have been trying to do is to get prepared and leave the calling to the Government who is in charge,” he said.

“We have five divisions to complete our slate of candidates. The prospective candidates’ applications have been submitted at the regional level as part of the process. But I don’t think the government will call the elections in year four of their term and September [2023 is the start of] year four. So as far as I am concerned, I don’t expect an election this year at all. But, we are still prepared for it,” Campbell added.

PRECEDENT FOR LONG POSTPONEMENTS

There is precedent for long postponements for local government polls.

Following the general election in 1980, the local government polls were held in 1981 and not again until July 29, 1986. They were again held four years later on March 6, 1990, before an eight-year delay for the next elections on September 10, 1998.

Campbell expressed concern that the current continued postponement of the polls is robbing persons at the local level of representation, as between deaths, resignations and promotions, some 18 divisions are without representation.

Two PNP councillors in St James were booted for absenteeism during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four sitting members of parliament – Hugh Graham, Krystal Lee, Homer Davies and George Wright – also vacated their councillor posts after they were elected to Gordon House in September 2020.

The councillor for the Spanish Town division in the St Catherine Municipal Corporation also resigned.

Deaths have also left some divisions without representation in St Catherine, St Thomas and Portland.

THE PORTMORE PARISH ISSUE

One pundit believes the polls could be postponed for one of two reasons – or both.

“One, they are waiting for Portmore to be declared a parish, and possibly, they are also thinking of having the polls twinned with the referendum. My guess is that once Portmore becomes a parish, and the necessary things are done, elections will be held, as the referendum vote will not be held any time soon,” said the person, who did not wish to be named. “The referendum will take at least a year minimum. So if it’s been twinned with the elections, look for another year’s delay.”

The Government has been taking steps to have Portmore, a large community in St Catherine, declared a parish.

Portmore Mayor Leon Thomas told The Sunday Gleaner that if the Holness administration is waiting to settle the matter before calling the local polls, then they would not be called any time soon.

“The debate on the community becoming a parish still has ways to go. We have only held one town hall meeting and the residents have made it very clear that they must retain direct election of their mayor. They have also expressed dissatisfaction with the boundary changes being proposed, as lands that would be beneficial to Portmore would not be available,” he said.

While consultations have been taking place in various community groups, he said the proposal from the municipality to the local government ministry is for at least three more town halls, which would go into April.

Thomas said that the municipality has also voted on the motion for the retention of the direct election of the mayor.

Ten PNP and two JLP councillors make up the corps of elected representatives in the Portmore Municipal Corporation. The PNP councillors voted overwhelmingly to retain the current electoral system. Only one of the two JLP councillors was present when the vote was taken, and Thomas said that he abstained from voting for the provision.

“The people must be allowed to choose their mayor. They have elected both JLP and PNP mayors over time. Every meeting we go to, the sentiment is the same,” he stressed.

The long-standing issue of two Portmore councillors sitting in the St Catherine Municipal Corporation also remains unsettled.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com