This country’s adversarial political culture leaves little room for the constructive public discourse that should be taking place during the transition to a new local government system.
While partisan wranglings hog the spotlight, the transformation currently underway on the public administration of cities, towns and districts across Trinidad has been pushed into the background. This is of no benefit to the citizens directly affected by the most significant reforms to local government in more than three decades.
Just over a year ago, on May 23, 2022, Parliament passed the Miscellaneous Provisions (Local Government Reform) Act. That amendment to the Municipal Corporations Act is expected to bring about more effective quality service delivery and sustainable and balanced development of communities.
Considering the long, difficult process to finally get to this stage in the modernisation and transformation of local government, it is a pity there is so little effort to educate the public about the changes that will soon take effect.
This takes on even greater urgency now that Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has signalled that the election will occur within three months.
There is an opportunity now, with local government very much in focus since last week’s Privy Council ruling, for more responsible, fruitful discussions about the system that will be ushered in with the next election.
Dr Rowley has not yet announced the election date, but the PNM and UNC are already well into mobilising for the weeks of campaigning not too far off. Screening of prospective candidates is underway and it is important for voters to understand the expanded range of responsibilities for the men and women who will be vying to become councillors, corporation chairs and mayors.
Experience, qualifications and character will have to be carefully weighed, as, in the new dispensation, successful candidates will be employed full-time and put in charge of large budgets and significant resources, and will be co-ordinating key services in the municipalities.
Hopefully, the loud and persistent calls for the election to be held now will not drown out other critical elements of the reform process, especially after all the delays which citizens have been subjected to over many years.
Hazel Manning was the Local Government Minister when plans to upgrade the system were first announced. Several rounds of consultations were held, green and white papers produced — and then the process stalled.
In the intervening years, citizens have been subjected to chronic inefficiencies in the systems and councils struggled with insufficient resources and outdated operating systems. Frustration over these failures in the system has boiled over into many of the fiery protests staged in communities.
At its core, local government is about the delivery of service and facilitating development that affects citizens directly at the ground level. There needs to be greater awareness so they can enjoy the full benefits of the long-promised modern and transformed municipal corporation members who will be sworn in after the election.
Unfortunately, politics in T&T is so sharply focused on tribalism and the quest for power that there is little room for the commitment to service that should be at the core of local government representation.
So much more progress could be made if efforts are made by those holding office and seeking office, to lift the quality of the debate on these crucial political issues.