The Mayor and his enemies

Stabroek News
April 14, 2000

It seems that the Mayor is afraid that the media will damage his image. On Monday, (with the concurrence of the Councillors) he excluded journalists from a statutory meeting of the Council at which the budget estimates, of all things, were to be discussed.

His problem, of course, is not one of image, it is one of substance, and his real difficulties lie not with the perceptions of the media, but with the perceptions of the public.

Some of his predecessors have had far worse problems with the press. In 1839, the Gazette called the Council "a stupid and obstinate corporation." The paper did not end there. In an editorial on the subject of the Mayor and his Councillors it thundered: "What are they? Who made them? Could not the Court annihilate them tomorrow? If His Excellency [the Governor] and the Court should abrogate the law, His Worship the Mayor and all the lesser lights of the Council would flicker back to that opacity and coldness from which they were so lately lighted up."

If the Mayor and the lesser lights did not impress the editor of the Gazette, they certainly made a better impression on the public. In a long running battle with the Government - in this case, Governor Light - the Mayor certainly won out in the popularity stakes. The Councillors took their campaign against the Governor to the streets of Georgetown where they collected signatures from passers-by to append to a memorandum which they sent to the Colonial Office in London. In 1839, it appears, the Mayor had no difficulty in persuading citizens to take his side, no matter what the press wrote about him.

Of course, being a Councillor in those days was more a cause for sympathy than congratulation. The very first municipal authority which the capital enjoyed was the Board of Police, created in 1812. Appointment to the Board was regarded as a fate to be avoided, and many of those nominated declined the honour. As a consequence, the Government had to institute a fine of 1,000 guilders (a substantial sum of money in those days) to be paid by anyone who refused to serve the municipality.

In 1837, the modern Mayor and Council came into being. For the very first time, councillors were to be elected, but that did not mean that those voted into office were any more enthusiastic about serving the city than their predecessors on the Board had been. Out of abundant caution, the Court of Policy imposed a 700 guilder fine on anyone declining to stand as a candidate for Councillor.

After the votes had been counted for Georgetown's very first election, it was discovered that the wards of Lacytown and Columbia had no councillors at all, because none of the citizens living there had bothered to vote. Two other wards were similarly unrepresented, because their councillors had disappeared out of the country. Finally, with a 700 guilder fine making withdrawal an unappetizing proposition, some candidates had campaigned vigorously against their own election.

It would appear too, that the early council was rather more slick in dealing with the Government than Mayor Green has been. In fact, it got away with some quite outrageous manoeuvres which would not be countenanced nowadays. After approaching the Court of Policy for a loan, the Council was refused, because it would not state the reason for which it wanted the money. Nothing daunted, the Mayor and Council took an overdraft from the bank, giving the municipal taxes as security. As a consequence, Georgetown's taxes were then paid into a bank, instead of into the treasury. Governor Light was incensed. "It is illegal, unprecedented and it shall be prevented," he fulminated. It was illegal, but the Council nevertheless got away with it.

We have now evolved to the point where we have a Mayor and City Council not just at odds with the Government and, in its perception, the media, but also at odds with the public. Devoid of ammunition and lacking popular appeal, it is a war on three fronts which it surely cannot win.