With Local Government Elections (LGE) less than two weeks away, the rather underwhelming awareness of the event received a fillip Saturday when a public interest group, “Under the Tamarind Tree” pulled off a very well-organised debate between six of the contestants for the 15 constituencies that constitute the Municipality of Georgetown. Broadcast live over the State television, a cable company and streamed over the Internet, it was seen by a large swathe of the Guyanese public and hopefully stimulated some interest in their own specific constituencies.
After a hiatus of 22 years, it appeared that apart from Mark Benschop, the contestants – Phillip Thomas – A Guyana Nation Building Corps; Sherod Duncan – APNU+AFC; Mark Benschop – Team Benschop; Michael Leonard – Team Legacy; James Cole – PPP/C; and Clayon Halley – Youth For Local Government – were not fully aware of the rationale for the struggle over local government that extends over 35 years.
Guyana emerged from a colonial government that imposed a very centralised, militarised command and control governance structure intended to keep the populace subjugated to extract the maximum wealth for its own purposes. This was deepened by the post-1970 PNC regime even though it purported to “decentralise” governance via a “Regional System”, further broken down into Neighbourhood Democratic Councils and Municipalities. Subsequent to constitutional changes in 2000, a bipartisan task force worked to draft new Local Government legislation that would return autonomy to Local Government institutions by removal of Central Government ministerial control and conceding greater financial autonomy.
The question that fazed each of the contestants was on how precisely was the municipality to achieve that financial autonomy so that it would not be “muzzled by the (Central Government) hand that fed it”. They were all quite prolix on the number of projects they would execute, but obviously did not spend enough time on the funding issue. When the Youth for Local Government candidate entirely missed the import of the question, the moderator used his prerogative to have the question redirected to each of the other contestants. Most of them flubbed their answers in not conceptualising of securing revenue streams great enough to deal with the challenges confronting the city.
The PPP candidate said he would offer an “amnesty” to defaulting taxpayers and thereafter pursue collection vigorously. Benschop would focus on garnering funds from advertising on city locations, parking meters in commercial zones and interestingly from radio and TV stations the city would presumably acquire. Leonard waxed vehemently against “outsiders” from the East Coast and “over the river” who use the city’s facilities without paying for them. He would install toll mechanisms, presumably akin to the ones that medieval cities used to have to ensure they paid their way. He did not say whether he would go as far as building a wall around the city with drawbridges at strategic points to collect the tolls. He brushed off the shabby treatment meted out to farmer-vendors who were expelled from Merriman Mall, to expatiate on “better use” of city spaces.
Duncan, who did exhibit wide knowledge of City minutiae, including the need for a “budget greater than $2B”, offered as his big funding proposal a return of the Lotto to the City and charging GPL for its posts on city pavements. Inter alia, he glossed over the question posed directly to him as to how would he deal with the contradiction of fighting for the city to be autonomous from the Central Government while being on the slate of the party controlling that Central Government.
Overall, the Georgetown Debate was a worthwhile endeavour in permitting the citizens of Georgetown, with one quarter of the entire country’s population, to have a glimpse of some of the independent candidates who are attempting to wrest control of City Hall from interests that have become too entrenched and too corrupt. Maybe the Debate will spur all involved in these LGE to “get their act together”.