COLUMN – To more people-based councils!
We must always be on our guard to resist the counterproductive urge to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water! And a good case in point is the system of Government-established Constituency Councils.
At present, there are many strident calls for the jettisoning of this Democratic Labour Party (DLP) programme, and these calls are understandable. But I would like to urge my fellow Barbadians to make a distinction between the noble and highly desirable concept of Local Government in the form of genuine people-based community or constituency councils and the highly partisan abomination of this concept that the DLP has foisted on our nation.
In the year 2006 , the People’s Empowerment Party (PEP) published a leaflet in which it called for a system of Constituency Councils and explained in detail how the system would work. Unfortunately no member of the PEP was elected to the House of Assembly in the 2008 general elections, and it therefore had very limited leverage to influence Government policy in the post 2008 period.
Soon after its 2008 election victory the new DLP Government took hold of our Constituency Council proposal, bastardized our ideas, and produced a system of Constituency Councils whose major functions are, apparently, to sponsor a karaoke competition, run a politically partisan football tournament, and provide a mechanism for DLP partisan influence at the community level.
But this regrettable occurrence should not cause us to lose sight of the intrinsic worth and relevance of the concept of a community-based tier of governance and administration.
If, instead of this DLP-orchestrated bastardization, the PEP’s ideas had been implemented, the Barbadian people would have received a system of popularly elected community-based councils designed to carry out the following functions:
Where there are emergency cases of garbage pile-ups, excessive overgrown bush or potholes in minor roads in the community, the council would not have to wait on and beg the Sanitation Service Authority, the National Conservation Commission or the Ministry of Public Works. Instead, the council would be equipped with an Environmental Fund that would enable it to respond immediately by contracting a community-based service provider and his or her local community workers to clear away the health hazard, or to patch the road.
The Ministry of Education would be required to consult with the council on the appointment of boards of management of all Government schools within the council area. Needless to say, a much closer relationship between schools and the communities in which they are located would emerge.
Furthermore, in addition to the normal Government welfare agencies, the council would administer an Emergency Welfare Fund for residents of the council area, as well as a local Scholarship And Apprenticeship Fund, to assist students experiencing serious financial difficulties.
A number of small council- run food and nutrition centres would be established at strategic locations, and the basic essential foods –– rice, potatoes, chicken –– would be made available to needy residents at the lowest possible prices.
In other words, the funds of the council would be used for the provision of critical services to residents
at the most intimate community level.
Councils would also be responsible for the granting of vendor’s licences within the council area, and for identifying locations where vendors would be permitted to operate.
Councils would also establish forums where residents would discuss and make recommendations in respect of new laws and policies which are being considered by the House of Assembly. In addition, the relevant Government agencies would be required to consult with the council on applications for major projects in the constituency area. Indeed, councils would play an important role in the putting together of Government’s annual work plans and budgets by advising the various Government ministries and departments as to the needs of their council areas for roads, housing, jobs, sports and recreational facilities.
The council would also be available to receive complaints and requests for assistance from residents, and to liaise with the Member of Parliament of the constituency.
There are many Government agencies that are supposed to serve the public, but are falling short in their performance –– a prime example being the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. The existence of a collective islandwide pool of some 600 Constituency Councillors would therefore make it possible to set up a number of “oversight” or “watchdog” committees to investigate and “police” the relevant operations in all Government agencies that interact with the public –– all in the interest of ensuring that more efficient governmental services are delivered to the Barbadian people.
Each Constituency Council would also ensure that the elderly, needy and disabled residents of their area are all properly looked after. Each council would be equipped with the services of a paid full-time professional social worker who would undertake responsibility for setting up a mechanism that would enable the council to liaise and collaborate with such agencies as the National Assistance Board, Welfare Department, CERO, Division of Youth Affairs, BARP, National Disabilities Unit and local churches to ensure no community resident is neglected.
Indeed, “community well-being teams” would be established by the professional social worker to check on and procure assistance for at-risk residents.
And finally, councils would assume responsibility for establishing boards of management of community centres within the council area, and for overseeing community development and sports programmes in collaboration with the relevant Government departments and agencies.
It should be clear from the foregoing that the PEP version of a Constituency Council is a far cry from the tawdry and relatively meaningless partisan playthings that the present Government has foisted upon our nation.
By all means, let us call for a getting rid of the current Constituency Councils, but let us also attach to that call a demand that they be replaced by genuine people-based councils established along the lines proposed by the PEP!
(David Comissiong, attorney-at-law, is president of Clement Payne Movement.)