Make parish coun­cils earn their keep

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY -

IT’S TOO late to do any­thing se­ri­ous about it, for se­ri­ous dis­course will be a ca­su­alty in the uned­i­fy­ing din that will pass as the cam­paign for the Novem­ber 28 lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions. How­ever, it must be an ur­gent fea­ture of their post-elec­tion ex­is­tence: con­sis­tent rat­ing of the per­for­mance of parish coun­cils and, if they are main­tained, whether they are worth their keep.

There are some in­dis­putable facts about the lo­cal gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tions. First, the 13 au­thor­i­ties, in­clud­ing the Kingston and St Andrew Cor­po­ra­tion (KSAC), the one for the cap­i­tal, sup­port a com­bined 228 di­vi­sional coun­cil­lors, plus ad­min­is­tra­tive and tech­ni­cal staff. There is also the Port­more Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil with its own su­per­struc­ture as well as a di­rectly elected mayor. It costs tax­pay­ers ap­prox­i­mately J$2 bil­lion a year in di­rect trans­fers from the cen­tral gov­ern­ment for the up­keep of this sys­tem, not count­ing any­thing ad­di­tional the parish coun­cils wran­gle in rates and other fees.

Anec­do­tally, we know that the ma­jor­ity of Ja­maicans do not re­spect the parish coun­cils, or take them se­ri­ously. In­deed, hardly more than 35 per cent of regis­tered vot­ers bother to cast bal­lots in these elec­tions. A ma­jor part of the prob­lem is that peo­ple be­lieve not only that they are in­com­pe­tently man­aged, but cor­rupt – troughs through which the national par­ties dis­pense low-level pa­tron­age, while the di­vi­sional fac­to­tums and poorly di­rected staff get dibs on sliv­ers of pork. On the ev­i­dence of re­cent events, the pub­lic, per­haps, has good rea­sons to think so.

Our view, as we have ex­pressed sev­eral times be­fore, is that the parish coun­cils, now loftily named mu­nic­i­pal cor­po­ra­tions, should be abol­ished in favour of pro­fes­sional and ac­count­able city and/or re­gional man­agers work­ing on per­for­mance-based con­tracts that can be ter­mi­nated once agreed tar­gets are not met. This idea is un­likely to be em­braced.

DEEPLY IN­VESTED

Ja­maica’s political par­ties are deeply in­vested in the lo­cal gov­ern­ment sys­tem, so they are un­likely to em­brace this idea, de­spite af­ter more than a gen­er­a­tion of sup­posed re­forms, there is lit­tle to show in terms of im­proved ser­vice de­liv­ery or en­hanced ef­fi­ciency.

In this re­spect, there are a num­ber of ideas worth ex­plor­ing that might lead to some im­prove­ments in the sys­tem. It won’t hap­pen this time, but the par­ties could start with im­prov­ing the qual­ity of can­di­dates they nom­i­nate to present them in the parish coun­cils, mov­ing away from those whose in­stinct is to dive head first in the bar­rel for peo­ple with ideas for their de­vel­op­ment of com­mu­ni­ties and ef­fi­cient and trans­par­ent ways to get it done. But their par­ties, first, to have a vi­sion of how the parish coun­cil fits into national so­cial and economic de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing poli­cies to de­liver economic growth.

ARNOLD BER­TRAM’S PRO­POSAL

In this re­gard, Arnold Ber­tram’s pro­posal from more than two decades ago, when he was lo­cal gov­ern­ment min­is­ter, has rel­e­vance. He sug­gested col­laps­ing the 14 ex­ist­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ment bod­ies into larger re­gional coun­cils, al­low­ing them, through the economies of scale, to bet­ter, and more ef­fi­ciently raise money with which to de­liver ser­vices.

There is a po­ten­tial up­side of this. You might, in one swoop, be able to slash more than half of the 228 coun­cil­lors who suck up a big por­tion of that J$2 bil­lion tax­pay­ers fork out to keep the au­thor­i­ties afloat. Ad­min­is­tra­tive staff, too, could be ra­tio­nalised. This would con­trib­ute to the Gov­ern­ment meet­ing its tar­get un­der the IMF agree­ment of re­duc­ing the pub­lic-sec­tor wage bill to nine per cent of GDP.

Fur­ther, maybe quar­terly or half-yearly, lo­cal gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties should be per­for­mance-ranked, based on how ef­fi­ciently they man­age re­sources, the time­li­ness and qual­ity of their ser­vice de­liv­ery, such as ex­e­cut­ing build­ing ap­provals or act­ing on res­i­dents’ com­plaints about mat­ters over which they have charge. That can start now.

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