Constitutional commission to vote on village council recommendation

Stabroek News
July 1, 1999

The Constitutional Reform Commission will vote tomorrow on whether it will recommend a return to the village councils as the basic unit of the local government system. Re-establishment of the village councils has been one of the most voiced recommendations.

However, after three sessions on the issue against a background of proposals put up by one of its sub-committees headed by PNC representative, Vincent Alexander, the commission remained undecided. At the last discussion on Tuesday, the commission deferred decision on the issue until tomorrow. The deferral was to allow for further informal discussions between Alexander and Reepu Daman Persaud, the senior of the five representatives of the PPP/Civic.

Monday's discussion focused on a set of principles to guide the establishment of the local government system which should be included in the constitution. Some of these principles are that local authorities should be autonomous; local government bodies should be the creation of the Parliament; and the local government system should be hierarchical with representation on the higher tier from the lower one. The others are that natural communities, which in most cases are villages, should be the basis of the local government system; the mechanics for the electoral system used for local government bodies should place a premium on the objectives of establishing representativeness of and accountability to the electorate; the electoral system used for local government elections should facilitate and encourage the involvement of individuals in their own right; and that there should be objective criteria for the allocation of resources to, and the garnering of resources by, local authorities as a basis for facilitating their effective performance.

The proposals by Alexander were influenced by previous proposals considered by the commission and on which their discussions were inconclusive. These proposals called for a three-tier local government system with the village councils at the lowest tier; the neighbourhood democratic councils at the second tier and the regional democratic councils at the top.

They also proposed the establishment of a constitutional body--a Local Government Commission--which would be responsible for staffing matters related to the local authorities and would also be concerned with policy matters and investigating complaints against local authorities.

Commissioners Ramdial Bhookmohan and Vidyanand Persaud, representatives respectively of the private sector and the Hindu community, supported a return to the village council system, explaining that there was wide support for such a move based on submissions at the public hearings which they attended.

Commission secretary, Haslyn Parris, reminded the commissioners that their opinion on the issue was mandatory under their terms of reference as embodied in the Act which established the commission.

However, Persaud urged a deferral of a decision on the system so as to allow further discussions with Alexander. He pointed out that a number of the proposals was already contained in the 1970 legislation, such as the establishment of a Local Government Commission. Also, he cautioned that the commission should be careful to ascertain what currently exists; the weaknesses in what exists; and how the identified weaknesses should be addressed.

He noted too that the return to the village council system would involve an expansion of the local government bureaucracy with the need to establish a large number of councils. Also, he pointed out that Act 12 of 1980 which established the present regional system vested the regional democratic councils with certain powers as they relate to village councils and consideration had to be given to the relationship which the Act created.

Act 12 of 1980 was the brainchild of PNC leader, Desmond Hoyte SC, who at the time had regional development among his ministerial responsibilities in the then PNC administration.

During the second debate on the issue, Philomena Sahoye-Shury, another of the five PPP representatives on the commission, had said that the proposals for the return to the village council system would be a retrograde system. Instead she said that the present system of neighbourhood democratic councils was working well and could be improved in line with the recommendations of the Caribbean Institute for Development Administration. The neighbourhood democratic councils are part of the regional system provided for in Act No 12 of 1980.

Responding to Persaud's comments, Alexander stressed that while the 1970 Act might have provided for a Local Government Commission, in the 20 years since it had been in force no administration had seen it fit to establish it. His proposals for the inclusion of the principles in the Constitution is intended to ensure that intentions are translated into action.

Alexander also stressed that the commission should heed the views of the people who have called for a return to the village council systems. He observed that the PNC considered local government to be the foundation of democracy and as such it could not be left to the discretion of the executive arm of the government.

When asked to vote on the principles put up by Alexander, some commissioners felt that they had not had enough time to study them and the commission, by consensus, agreed to vote on them tomorrow.

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Guyana: Land of Six Peoples