Make parish councils earn their keep
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.
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.