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Struggling for a new model of local govt

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

“It will take Trinidad a long time to recognise that it is a long way off the mark and must be prepared to make a quantum leap away from a model (of local government) which is not only counterproductive but more importantly, denies the people the goods and services that are rightfully due to them.”

That is one of the conclusions of the “Conspiracy Against the People—the case of Local Government in T&T” made by Louis Lee Sing, the 40th mayor of the capital city of Port-of-Spain after his 39-month long term in office. 

Lee Sing relates the systematic deprivation of burgesses of services and facilities through a triad of uncaring attitudes, administrative misalignment and a fundamentally-flawed governance structure mixed in with political bad mind between the central government of the ruling People’s Partnership and the opposition People’s National Movement which controlled the city corporation.

In his typically aggressive style, the former mayor slams the central government of the ruling PP but does not spare his own party, the PNM, which he notes has always been in control of the running of the capital city, from excoriating criticism charging neglect and political intrigue to get rid of him.  

However, he lists a few victories achieved by himself as mayor and his Council. Amongst them, the conversion of King George V Park into a place of recreation for children and families; a measure of relief brought to the residents of Woodbrook plagued by general indiscipline and unconcern for the burgesses of the urban town and a number of other material gains including revenue-collection measures.

But outside of the “nuts and bolts” of the work done, Lee Sing says the Council “established a greater awareness of what strong civic-mindedness must come to mean in the city.”

Many projects were left behind; many he surmises may be dropped off the agenda. No solution to the decades-old problems of street dwellers, street vending, replacing 3,000 insanitary and inhumane latrine pits with toilets, clearing the slums of East Port-of-Spain, having glass bottles removed from Carnival parade days (here again in 2015), a new traffic system to avoid the inevitable grid lock.

The problem of elected Councilors being trampled under the feet of MPs and the many battles he waged against the administrative bureaucracy in the City Corporation.

However, the most salient and instructive elements of the book are in the analysis of the dysfunctional structure of local government bodies: the constraint of the Council not being answerable to the mayor and his Council but to a local government minister. The conflict is amplified when the party in central government is different to that which is in office in the city corporation.

One fallout effect is the City being dictated to by the central government; and the inadequacy of the allocation of funding for special projects even when the action required “is in the interest of the people.”

“The evidence suggest that successive governing political parties have all argued strongly in favour of autonomy for local government while in opposition but once they control the corridors of Whitehall, they abandon decentralisation in preference for tighter and more restrictive controls on local government,” says Lee Sing.  

Specific to the city of PoS and its myriad problems, Lee Sing indicts his own party, the PNM. He notes that the party has had unbroken control of the city; what is more is that the PNM has been in control of the government over the long history.

He is of the view that the city corporation can raise as much as 40 per cent of its budget from its own measures. To demonstrate that claim Lee Sing, as mayor, stuck the Council’s hands in the deep pockets of commercial enterprises and the not so deep pockets of individuals. On the lack of caring by his own party, Lee Sing gives an account of frightening disinterest.

“There must be something fundamentally flawed with a system that makes no demands for accountability of a serving officer who had the responsibility to spearhead expenditure in the sum of $600 million,” observes Lee Sing noting that not the “chairman nor (sic) the Political Leader asked me to account.” This was preceded by an aborted attempt by the party to have him impeached; his account of the political manoeuvring is interesting internal politics.

Lee Sing’s contests with ministers Sharma, Rambachan and Tewarie, were he claims, about preventing them from retarding the work of the corporation. “I never imagined that so many people with so little cerebral ability could be assembled in one place,” proclaimed Lee Sing in reference to the PP government. But he records successful engagement on specific projects with ministers Warner and Moonilal; even though Warner hung him out to dry after joint agreement to meet with gang leaders.  

His projections for a capital city are a mixture of work left undone by generations of councils and a few new ideas. The experience behind him, Lee Sing should collaborate with the local government specialists at UWI to draft a new model of local government for discussion and implementation.


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