Right ruling on Portmore boundary
NO ONE who has had even a cursory read of the Municipalities Act would be surprised by Justice Martin Gayle’s ruling this week that maintains the existing boundaries of the Portmore municipality in the parish of St Catherine.
The most immediate consequential effect of this decision is that it will prevent residents from the St Catherine communities of Lakes Pen, Quarrie Hill, Grange Lane and Clifton, which are part of the constituency of St Catherine Southern, from voting in next week’s vote to choose the municipality’s council and its directly elected mayor. Unless there is a stay or urgent overturn of the judge’s ruling, the decision implies changed political calculus for parties and candidates who contest the election and potentially messy management problems for the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ), only days ahead of the vote. It need not have come to this. Nineteen months ago, when two Portmore politicians, Keith Blake and Welton Shettlewood, first challenged then local government minister, Noel Arscott, on the way he was attempting to adjust the Portmore boundaries, we, too, warned Minister Arscott of the folly of his ways.
As we said then, and Justice Gayle upheld, the unambiguous declaration of Section 3 (3) is of the rules for establishing the boundaries of a municipality before it receives its charter from the minister. That included having a petition “signed by seven per cent of the inhabitants of the proposed municipality, whose names, at the time of the signature, are on the official list of electors for the House of Representatives”. Nowhere in the law is there a provision for how a boundary is to be amended.
In other words, in law, once the municipal boundaries are established, there is no way to change them, barring amending the legislation. Instead, Mr Arscott sought to use the rules that apply at the genesis of a municipality and engaged the EOJ as an agent in gathering signatures for the petition.
Initially, he seemed to have implicit support from the then opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), on the grounds that election-related issues, including voting boundaries, are usually settled by consensus by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), on which the major political parties are represented.
Whatever may have been the broad merit of that position, it ignored a critical fact: decisions taken by the ECJ have to be grounded in law, not ultra vires thereof. Indeed, it is the case that when the ECJ recommends substantial changes to electoral procedures, which are not contemplated in existing laws, they are accompanied by proposed amendments to the law, or for the passage of new ones.
In any event, in this case, this was not an initiative of the ECJ, but an action of the then minister, in which, unfortunately, the ECJ allowed itself to be embroiled. For while ministers might argue that municipality boundaries are specifically within their purview, the ECJ has developed sufficient moral authority to say no, similar to how it recently pushed back against the new administration on their own Portmore boundary adventure.