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Rethinking local government

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

One of the remarkable things about the recently-concluded by-election campaigns in Barataria and Belmont East was the almost complete absence of discourse on the abundant possibilities of local government reform.

Such discussions would have included, but would not have been limited to, a much better deal for the men and women who are essentially on the job 24/7 even as they are compensated as if they provide mere part-time services to the municipalities.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for everything and the platform of a low-profile by-election campaign won’t necessarily take such a discussion very far. But what was disturbing was that the intervention of the political parties in injecting some semblance of a bigger picture on the hustings, appeared opportunistic and in the process belittled the day-to-day causes the six candidates were attempting to highlight.

Without doubt, the United National Congress will continue to gloat over its marginal triumph over the People’s National Movement in Barataria and the PNM its reduced but successful recapture of Belmont East.

But the context of continuing voter apathy hardly signals a genuine victory for the democratic process or the prestige of municipal governance. For, in the process, the electorate also appeared to ignore the bright, flashing lights on display.

In a local government context, a vector-breeding environment that has led to a high incidence of Dengue, Zika and Chikungunya is immensely more important to burgesses than whether official victimisation is occurring on the basis of religion or the length of time the Galleons Passage took to arrive in T&T—as bizarre as the latter circumstance might appear to be.

Past experience with downplaying the parochial, community issues on the hustings is that it has served to undermine the value of the significant contribution local government practitioners make toward enhancing the quality of life of communities.

These kinds of “national” campaigns also belie the high level of bipartisanship that exists in the corridors and chambers of the regional, borough and city corporations.

During national consultations on local government reform, an activity I had the opportunity to moderate in 2016, it was hard to tell one from the other, when it came to the political allegiances of the counsellors and aldermen who participated.

In fact, the base document around which the consultations was centred, emerged out of the work of no fewer than three ministers of local government from the two major parties—the PNM and the UNC—all proposing essentially the same process of devolving central government power and responsibility to local government; nuanced to accommodate political point-scoring of course.

I continue to hold that one of the main reasons why the parties hold essentially the same views on this matter is that central governments have been hopeless on the question of the “little things” that keep people safe and satisfied within their neighbourhoods and communities.

The UNC local government councillor on my neighbourhood Whatsapp group, for example, has worked alongside a representative of the PNM MP for some time now to help resolve community concerns minus the national level rage and partisan finger-pointing.

A reformed process would also enable local representatives to make the big things possible. However, this would require a level of magnanimity and cooperation witnessed every day at the local level, but almost completely absent in national politics.

It also requires that community representatives be nudged up the totem pole of influence and prestige. It is absolutely ridiculous, for example, that their compensation packages do not cater for the fact that theirs is a fulltime occupation.

Representatives of all political persuasions suffer this indignity. Yet, their party bosses, across the aisle, and who can make this possible, are not moved to jointly resolve this problem. It does not require an entire overhaul of the system to achieve this.

So, yes, both parties will continue to moan or to celebrate as they should, but the potential of an empowered system of local government should never be underestimated.


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