Deepen di­a­logue on Port­more

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION&COMMENTARY -

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.

UN­DER­STAND­ABLE MOVE

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.

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