City Hall and demolition
January 27, 2003
Last week, the City Engineer's Department of the Mayor and City Council tore down a fence erected by Demerara Shipping Company Limited, saying it was on the city's reserve and the construction contravened the established procedures for such work.
In an environment where for too long too many laws, by-laws and rules have gone unenforced, the efforts of the City Engineer should be seen as a positive development. The capital city and its outlying areas have become perfect examples of the lawlessness that has engulfed the country over many years without anything being done about it. It is a sickness that has led to workshops emerging in solidly residential area, sawmills in the midst of populated zones, beer gardens anywhere and numerous constructions which trespass on the city's reserves and offend regulations dealing with the height of fences and building too close to fences etc. It is literally build as you like. So the effort by the City Engineer and his department is positive in that respect.
But when the demolition team moved in and broke down the fence, it raised two disconcerting issues which both the City Engineer and the full City Council must tackle in the interest of Georgetown.
Is the City Engineer's Department acting with similar dispatch and determination with respect to other transgressions that exist at the moment? Numerous complaints have been made in the past about illegal constructions on parapets and unapproved designs being used for construction without action being taken. What about the constructions by vendors? An eye cast around the city would reveal stark contraventions and extensions onto the city's reserve for commercial and other purposes. (See Cecil Griffith's column in this issue.) Is the City Engineer's Department prepared to take similarly stern action? The department is now on notice that the public expects it to keep an eagle eye on all future infractions of the city's building laws and take similarly decisive action in the interest of fairness.
The second issue is one which has also festered for quite some time. It is clear that the Mayor remains at loggerheads with some of his top officers including the City Engineer. In essence, what played out in the demolition of the fence was not only correcting a violation of the city's by-laws but also making clear who was calling the shots at City Hall. Despite the intervention of the mayor in the matter, based on appeals made to him by the company, the City Engineer went ahead with the breaking down of the fence to the embarrassment of the `Chief Citizen'. It is no secret that there is an uneasy relationship between the mayor and some of his top officers. He has on several occasions called for enquiries into the operations spearheaded by some of his top officers and even though the Ministry of Local Government has gotten involved, these have not been done. The division between the mayor and his officers is a result of the general malaise that afflicts the local government system and life in general in Guyana. A lot of it has its roots in politics and pettiness and this council has been at the helm of the city's affairs since 1994 in an unbroken spell that has seen a continuing deterioration of Georgetown's fortunes. No new election is likely until next year and Georgetown, its governors and citizens will simply have to mark time until then.
The challenge for the city ad interim is ensuring that the division between the mayor and his officers does not manifest itself in decisions inimical to the interests of the city. In the case of the fence demolition, the company had not denied that it was in violation of the rules and was prepared for dialogue. Apparently in a bid to reinsure its position it appealed to the mayor and there was clearly room for talks until the City Engineer's heavy equipment moved in and pulled down the fence. Was there no other way? This is what the council and its officers must now debate in the open. Surely there could have been some compromise worked out. As it is, a significant amount of material and labour have gone to naught in these very tough times. The mayor has pointed out that it was agreed that whenever demolitions were to be done he should be given 24 to 48 hours notice to work other channels to see if some amicable decision could not be arrived at. This was not done in this instance. The business community resident in the city, and which provides jobs and helps to sustain Georgetown, should always be given an opportunity to mend infractions observed.
The Mayor and City Council and its officers face the challenge of ensuring evenhandedness in the application of laws and making certain that internal divisions do not result in hasty and ill-conceived decisions.