Deepen dialogue on Portmore
NOW THAT Justice Martin Gayle has made clear to the authorities that there is no way under the law, as it now exists, to amend the boundaries of a municipality, the Holness administration must take care that in its own craving for partisan advantage in Portmore, it, too, doesn’t find itself before the courts, facing complaints of breaching natural justice.
The Government, therefore, should review carefully the bill it has before Parliament aimed not only at establishing rules for such boundary changes, but to remove any entitlement of an elected city, or town councillor, to membership of a local government for a region within which the city or town falls. This is a move aimed, ultimately, at dislodging Portmore municipal councillors from the St Catherine Municipal Corporation.
Further, whatever the posture of the Government, the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), as an independent body overseeing electoral issues – which is also specifically named among the groups able to make a submission to the minister for the change of a city or municipality boundary – has a responsibility to lead on this issue. It must assert primary authority in the establishment of all election-related boundaries, and, given how these matters are likely to overlap, its right to have a voice in any discussion on general geographic delimitation.
This issue arose nearly two years ago when the former People’s National Party (PNP) government sought to amend the boundaries of the Portmore municipality to embrace a group of informal settlements in the St Catherine Southern constituency, which, hitherto, had no representation in the council. These communities, however, largely vote PNP in national elections. Adding them to the roll for the Portmore municipal elections would likely give the PNP a long-term lock on the sprawling region on the directly elected mayorship.
The problem, though, as we noted in early 2015, is that the law, while having procedures for establishing municipal boundaries, has no mechanism for changing them. Instead of asking Parliament to amend the law, the then local government minister, Noel Arscott, attempted to use the mechanism intended to be applied at the genesis of a municipality. The court has said he was wrong.
The eight-month-old Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration, appropriately, is attempting to fix this. But when it brought that legislation to the House a fortnight before this coming Monday’s local government election, it attempted to do something more: kick Portmore council members out of the St Catherine Municipal Corporation.
The timing, on the eve of the election, was crude but an understandable political move. Portmore accounts for a dozen of St Catherine’s Municipal Corporation’s 41 members, and the majority of those from Portmore tend to be PNP. Eliminating the Portmore members, therefore, gives the JLP a better shot of controlling the St Catherine council.
The principle of not allowing people sitting as elected members of a domestic council automatic membership in a wider, separately elected body may well be right, but residents of Portmore will perhaps argue that the presence of their municipal corporation notwithstanding, natural justice demands that they not be shut out of the St Catherine local government, even if another mechanism has to be found to determine representation.
It is a matter that should be debated.