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Call for Effective National System of Local Government

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buy viagra times;”>Call for Effective National System of Local Government

cialis canada times;”>Alfred M. Sears, QC

May 20, 2016

 

Although both major political parties have pledged to put public power in the hands of Bahamian communities, through Local Government, about 70% of the Bahamian population living in New Providence has no organized structure or resources, apart from a vote once every five years, to make decisions about matters which affect their communities from issues of safety, environmental stewardship, town planning to economic promotion and development.  Local Government in the Family Islands is inadequately funded, with no revenue raising powers and no power to engage in the economic promotion in their various districts and towns.  In addition to Urban Renewal, I call for the full empowerment of Bahamian communities through a national system of Local Government, inclusive of New Providence, empowered to raise revenue and expanded functions in public safety, economic promotion and cultural and touristic development within their various districts and towns.

In September 2015 more than 150 countries met at the United Nations and adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which takes into account the role of Local Governments in achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals.  There is a global consensus that one of the best ways of realizing the 2030 Agenda is through strong Local Government processes.  According to UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon,“When we unlock local solutions, we will advance global progress.”  The Prime Minister of Malta, Dr. Joseph Muscat, stated, “Decentralization processes and effective Local Governance contribute significantly to deepening democracy and local empowerment, with is critical for the successful implementation of the post-2030 development agenda.”

 

In The Bahamas, there have long been public pronouncements by both major political parties that government is best when it is nearest to the people.  However, there has been a continuing reluctance on the part of successive Governments to devolve power to the people to make crucial decisions within their communities.  The process of decentralization and devolution of the governance process in The Bahamas has been tentative, with School Boards, Public Hospital Authority, Bahamas Maritime Authority and partial Local Government.  The highly centralized Bahamian state apparatus, inherited from the British without much respect for the attendant conventions, was designed to control a slave population and ensure colonial exploitation.  Given this history, a decolonized and sovereign Bahamian nation state must be engaged in a continuing process of decentralizing public power and empowering its citizens to create safe, prosperous and sustainable communities. Throughout the Commonwealth, robust Local Government is realizing this ongoing process of devolution, in part.

 

Warren J. Levarity, former Member of Parliament and Minister of Out Island Affairs in the first Majority Rule Cabinet and a founder of the Free National Movement, stated in 1967 that “An informed citizen is one who participates fully, understanding that democracy is not only the time spent in a polling booth every five years, but rather, democracy is the active participation of that same citizen in the day to day affairs of his country.”  Immediately after Majority Rule, the Progressive Liberal Party Government in 1967 issued a White Paper on Local Government.  Further, in 1989 Sir Lynden Pindling, speaking at a PLP Convention, pledged to implement local government throughout The Bahamas by 1992.  He stated that the PLP was “convinced that “a further democratization of the political system is in the best interest of the Bahamian people because it would give every citizen a greater access to and a greater sharing in the exercise of power.” 

 

Pedro Rolle, President of the Chamber of Commerce in Exuma, states that, “Accepting the premise that nation building and national development should be organic, it stands to reason that growth should be from the ground up.  No central governmental entity is more familiar with the problems and solutions of the community than the community itself. “

 

The former Commonwealth Secretary General, HE Rt. Hon. Don McKinnon, stated “There is no balance when local government is simply the deliverer of policies and services which are shaped, controlled by and wholly funded from national level. There is a balance when there is a sensible division of powers and responsibilities, a fair allocation of resources and a significant degree of local autonomy in the use of those resource.”

 

Notwithstanding the public recognition of the fundamental importance of local government and the pledge by the PLP to implement the same, when the Free National Movement assumed the Government in 1992, there was no system of Local Government in The Bahamas.

 

It was the Free National Movement in Government that implemented a limited form of Local Government in The Bahamas, with the passage of the Local Government Act, 1996.

 

The Local Government Act, 1996 authorized the Minister to divide The Bahamas into such number of districts as the Minister deems fit.  The names and boundaries of the local government districts and towns are set out in the Schedules of the Act.  However, New Providence is excluded from those places in The Bahamas where districts will be situated and local elections will take place.  The Island of New Providence, with a population, according to the 2010 population census, of 248,948 or about 70% of the total population of The Bahamas, is excluded from Local Government. 

 

The Act establishes local councils and town committees as body corporates, with perpetual succession and the power to own property and enter contracts.  The Act also empowers the Minister responsible for local government to appoint members to the local council or a Committee of Management, in certain circumstances, and allows civil servants to compete in local government elections.

 

The functions of the local government entities in the Family Islands are essentially limited to those functions that had previously been carried out by the local statutory boards prior to 1996, such as under the Road Traffic Authority, Port authorities Act, Town Planning Committee, Building Regulations Act, Hotel Licensing Board, and the Business Licensing Act, with respect to Bahamian citizens.  In addition, the functions also include general health and sanitation, maintaining roads and verges; cleaning and maintaining public parks, grounds, streets, wells and water tanks, public docks, harbours, pedestrian and parking areas, delivery of mail and safety around schools.  The Honourable George Smith has challenged this narrow functional role of local government and asserts, “Local Government includes the community’s relationship with law enforcement, stimulating local economic growth and with scores of other matters which touch the lives of residents, their personal interests and well-being.”  

 

Local Government authorities in The Bahamas have no revenue raising powers and are therefore dependent upon the Central Government for essentially all of their funding.  Further, Local Government authorities have no statutory role in the economic promotion, touristic and cultural development of their local districts and towns.  In fact, Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Hubert Ingraham, speaking at the Annual Local Government Conference on 29th October 2007, 11 years after the introduction of Local Government, was forced to concede that the Local Government structure was in need of radical reform.  Mr. Ingraham stated, in part, that “I have long been party to the school that professes that government is best that is nearest the people; that those who live in a community and face the day-to-day needs and challenges of the population have a special perspective on matters that impact that community.  It is regretted that the level of consultation by Central Government Agencies concerned with the approval of major development projects proposed for Family Islands has not always been as wide as might have been.  You will all be aware that Manifesto ’07 restated the Free National Movement’s commitment to the strengthening of Local Government in our Family Islands and, further, to its introduction in New Providence.  I want to assure you that we aim to achieve both during this term in office.”

 

As we now know, this pledge was not fulfilled.  However, Mr. Ingraham failed to address the need to empower local government authorities to become engaged in economic promotion and raise revenue to lessen their dependency on the central Government and to ensure their greater effectiveness.

 

Mr. Alexander E. Williams, recently retired Director of the Department of Local Government in The Bahamas, reminded us of the urgency of bringing local government to New Providence, “It is rather unfortunate that at their stage of national development in Twenty First Century Bahamas seventy percent (70%) of its people, Nassuvians do not have a system that brings democracy close to them. It must come sooner rather than later.”

Mr. Williams further asserted that “One of the most pressing, debilitating setbacks inhibiting the advancement, effectiveness and stability of Local Government in The Bahamas is its absolute financial dependency.  This has resulted in retardation and effectiveness of the system.” 

 

The Bahamas Association of Local Government Authorities (“BALGA”) proposed to the Government of The Bahamas that local government authorities in The Bahamas be given revenue-raising powers.  BALGA, with the support of Councils throughout The Bahamas, the endorsement of the Caribbean Association of Local Government authorities (“CALGA”) as well as the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, recommended that the Bahamian Parliament empower local authorities to collect certain local taxes and raise funds to augment the subventions from the Central Government, such as the following:

 

“License

Bicycle and dog licenses, boat registration (class B) and master licenses.

 

Rebates to Fund Small Capital Projects

  1. Up to 100%

 

Aviation Fees

Airports

2. UP TO 50 %

 

RTD – Motor Vehicles & Drivers

 

Hotels – Guest Tax

 

Real Property Taxes

 

Fees

Garbage Collection – Commercial Enterprises Only

 

Fundraising – Grants from National & International Organizations

 

  1. Community Fundraising – As Approved by the Minister.

 

  1. Grants from International Organizations, such as the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, the Association of Caribbean Local Government Authorities, the European Union, the United Nations, the UN Development Programme & its Small Grants Programme, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Florida Caribbean Cruise Association an VNG International – The Arial Programme: –

 

 

Similarly, the Honourable George Smith advocates that local government authorities should be permitted to raise revenue.  He states that “It would be proper and responsible to empower councils, with the prior approval of the Minister of Finance, to raise revenue through private grants and special fees for their own projects and through other money-making schemes designed for the particular community, sometimes in collaboration with organizations such as churches, lodges and improvement associations.”

 

I fully support the recommendations of BALGA and the Honourable George Smith.  However, I believe that we should pursue an even more ambitious decentralization agenda for The Bahamas. 

 

A cursory review of the Commonwealth’s best practice in the area of local government reveals that The Bahamas is out of step with its sister Commonwealth countries in not providing constitutional protection for Local Government, failing to vest revenue raising powers in Local Government authorities and failing to expand the functions of local authorities to areas such as local economic promotion, training, environmental protection and cultural and touristic development. 

 

In the following Commonwealth countries local government is entrenched in or mentioned in their constitutions, have revenue raising powers and have functions that include local economic promotion, primary healthcare, education and training, environmental protection and cultural and touristic development:  Bangladesh, Cameroon, Ghana, Jamaica (Bill pending in Parliament), Kiribati, Lesotho, Maldives, Malta, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, St. Lucia (suspended), South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda Vanuatu and Zambia.  It is interesting to note that in Malta and Tanzania local government and decentralization policy is placed in the Office of the Prime Minister to give monitoring and support to local government.  Even in the following Commonwealth countries without constitutional provision relating to local government, there is nevertheless statutory provision for local government to collect real property taxes, levies and rents and play a significant role in local economic promotion, healthcare, education, environmental protection and touristic and cultural development: Australia, Belize, Botswana, Canada, Dominica, Fiji, New Zealand, Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom.

 

I fully appreciate that the full empowerment of local government authorities and its expansion to New Providence must come along with the strengthening of the mechanisms of accountability, transparency and integrity measures instituted.  I adopt the recommendations of the President of the Exuma Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Pedro Rolle, when he proposes that the expanded local government structure should include “(a) A clear system of accountability must be in place; local government leaders must be answerable to their constituents at all times through mandated community meetings; (b) fiscal systems must be transparent and must be automated.  The temptation for graft must be almost absent as it relates to the collection of funds; (c) elected local government persons must be seen as a pool from which our national leaders are chosen.  This must be a training ground that enables communities to make informed leadership choices in the future.  This can only happen if Local Government is given the kind of platform it deserves.”

 

The colonial state shaped, controlled, funded and delivered the policy and services in the interest of the colonizer.  As a decolonized and sovereign democracy, we should have the political courage to redesign our governance structures and political practices to devolve power to the Bahamian people, through local government.  In this new paradigm, there should be “a sensible division of powers and responsibilities, a fair allocation of resources and a significant degree of local autonomy in the use of those resources.”  Therefore, we should rely on the people closest to the problems to solve them and allow the creative imagination and intellect of the Bahamian people to create new opportunities for growth and development throughout our archipelago in the interest of all present and those who are not yet born.  In this context, the central Government could concentrate on the making clear and visionary national policies, executing national policies, ensuring accountability and transparency in public life, both at the national and local levels, and ensuring the proper harmonization between the practices of local authorities and national policies and the National Development Plan

 

Having served as a Member of Parliament for 10 years, both as a Cabinet Minister and member of the Official Opposition, it is my observation that local communities are not best served by our highly centralized governance structure.  While we have seen some extraordinary Members of Parliament who are generally regarded as having been very present and effective in their constituencies, such as Cynthia “Mother” Pratt, Melanie Griffin, Fred Mitchell, Neko Grant and C.A. Smith, Members of Parliament, generally, do not have the resources and infrastructure to attend to the myriad of local community needs within their constituencies.  In just about all other Commonwealth countries, local government enables the citizens to have a direct role in solving community problems and in ensuring community safety, development and welfare, enables Members of Parliament to give more effective representation in Parliament and be more effective in the constituencies, through partnership with local government representatives.

 

I believe that if we were to empower local government in The Bahamas and expand it to New Providence, consistent with Commonwealth best practices, we would be better able to solve the persisting problems at the New Providence Landfill; the flooding problems in Pinewood; the pervasive crime problems in certain communities of New Providence; and to facilitate economic stimulation in Freeport, East Grand Bahama, Eight Mile Rock, Exuma, South Andros and all of the Family Islands.

 

If local government authorities are properly funded and empowered, they would bring more immediacy to solving community problems; increase innovation and entrepreneurial development of agriculture, the marine resources, the maritime industry and the cultural industries, with a sense of stewardship to protect ourselves and future generations of Bahamians.  We must learn how to trust the creative imagination, intellect and wisdom of our people to govern themselves.

 

Moreover, empowering Local Government in the area of economic promotion will shift the current national investment policy paradigm away from the passive position of waiting for the foreign direct investor to come to us with a vision for The Bahamas, as the engine for national development, to a more self-determining and affirming posture where properly funded and empowered local government authorities, along with the central Government, will pursue economic promotion, incentivizing Bahamian entrepreneurs and targeting and lobbying more appropriate and eco-friendly sources of foreign direct investment to their respective districts and towns to joint venture with local Bahamian entrepreneurs or in private/public partnerships.

 

The Bahamas, by not entrenching local government in its Constitution, giving it revenue raising powers, expanding the scope of its functions and extending it to New Providence, is out of step with the Commonwealth and the public pledge of our national leaders since 1967. 

 

I believe that this is a wonderful opportunity for the Progressive Liberal Party to become, once again, the vanguard of progressive and liberal changes in The Bahamas by empowering Bahamians, through effective local government throughout The Bahamas including New Providence, to exercise our democratic right of self-determination and democratic governance.