Fri | Aug 7, 2020

Editorial | Municipal corporations must own their power

Published:Tuesday | July 7, 2020 | 12:13 AM

As Jamaica prepares for its next cycle of parliamentary and local government elections, the campaign debate will, hopefully, clarify that municipal authorities are not supposed to be handmaidens of ruling-party legislators.

At least local government voters should be educated about the powers of the municipal councils, with which their members, at least the ambitious ones, should be happy if they are interested in emerging from under the thumbs of members of parliament (MPs). The Lisa Hanna affair, which recently re-emerged, insists upon it.

Three years ago, an investigation by the then contractor general, Dirk Harrison – one of the offices now incorporated into the Integrity Commission – concluded that the St Ann Municipal Corporation, during 2011 and 2015 when the People’s National Party formed the government and its members also controlled the parish’s local government, disproportionately awarded its micro contracts, such as for public cleaning and small infrastructure works, to adherents of the party. Many of the contractors, some of the members of her constituency executive, were recommended by Ms Hanna, the parliamentary representative for South East St Ann.

Mr Harrison questioned whether Ms Hanna engaged in a conflict of interest to a point where it arose to criminal abuse of her public office. It emerged last week that a year ago, Paula Llewellyn, the director of public prosecutions, ruled that nothing Ms Hanna had done was criminal. Neither had she broken government procurement rules.

Ms Llewellyn, however, went on to excoriate Ms Hanna, and the municipal authority, saying that Mr Harrison had unveiled a “culture of negligence and/or unethical management in the award of contracts developed in the St Ann Municipal Corporation, acting under the aegis of Ms Hanna”.

It was Ms Hanna’s defence, at the time of Mr Harrison’s investigation, that her contract recommendations for projects to be paid for from her Constituency Development Fund (CDF) were based on the fact that the proposed contractors had “proved trustworthy”.

As an aside, the issue, given reported misadministration of the contract regime at the St Ann Municipal Corporation (SAMC), raises questions about the oversight of the CDF unit within the Office of the Prime Minister, which was established precisely to prevent the laxity complained of. There is also a parliamentary committee that is to provide oversight to the public-sector overseers. However, schemes such as the CDF, which keeps patronage in the hands of politicians, is among the few matters on which there is consistent cross-party consensus.

On the larger issue of the relationship between local government councillors and MPs, the former have long, and more so in recent decades, felt subservient to the latter.

That, in part, is a manifestation of party loyalty and the wish of councillors to bask in the glory of those deemed to be higher up the political and social food chain. It stems, too, from the ambition of some councillors to, at some point, be elevated to the national Parliament. So, keeping on the good side of the MP is deemed to be a good thing.

REAL AUTHORITY

What councillors often miss, or pay insufficient attention to, though, is their real authority under the Local Governance Act and their potential, should they choose to accept the mission, to leverage its power for public good.

First, Section 12 of the act says that “a local authority shall be capable of acting by its council, and the council shall exercise all functions vested in the local authority or the council by this act, or otherwise”. In other words, except when the law allows for outside interventions, usually by the minister with responsibility for local government, municipal corporations, or city municipalities, largely act on their own authority.

Put another way, parish councillors, and local government councils, are not supposed to be marionettes of MPs. According to Section 22 (2) (a) of the law, “members of parliament representing constituencies within the area of its jurisdiction” are only a subset of the groups with which municipal councils should engage as part of their “collaboration or networking with all relevant stakeholders” as is required by Section 22(1).

Indeed, the law mandates the councils to establish mechanisms that “facilitate the participation and empowerment of civil society and communities in local governance processes”. It would be useful, in the circumstance, for an audit to be done to determine how well municipal corporations have fulfilled this requirement, if bodies such as parish development committees are in place, and if they actually exist, how well they have operated.

Further, as this newspaper highlighted in another recent controversy involving the SAMC and its chairman who reportedly resigned, Michael Belnavis, local government authorities are staffed by supposedly professional civil servants, including chief executive officers, who are their chief accounting officers. This cadre of professionals owes the corporations a duty of care and fiduciary responsibility, which ought not to be compromised because of the dictates of political leaders. They, too, should be held accountable for episodes of malfeasance, misfeasance, or nonfeasance.