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Raffique Shah


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Abolish Local Govt

By Raffique Shah
July 13, 2008

As if this country is not burdened by more than its fair share of woes, I don't know if I should laugh or cry over expressions of outrage by those who see the sky caving in on Trinidad and Tobago because government postponed Local Government elections for the third time. What, pray, is the big fuss over staging local elections? The municipalities and corporations continue to exist-note I did not say function-as they always have, elections or no elections. In other words, they did nothing to benefit citizens during their official tenure. And they continue to do nothing as they await reforms promised by the Government since 2002.

If I had any influence in this irrelevant discussion, I'd say: scrap the bloody councils! They serve no purpose that I can think of, except to have mayors and chairmen strut around adorned in silly cattle-sized gold-chains that make them look like Harlem pimps. Electors do not know their councillors' names, far less recognise their faces.

The councils are allocated millions of dollars that are used mainly to provide wages for employees who do not work. If ever one asks about repairs to some residential road or drain, one is given the merry-go-round, with no action. Other than feasting at meetings or any other occasion the councillors choose to, the people and their problems are least on their minds. These councils are merely an extension of political vandalism that runs from Parliament to just about every government department or agency.

How do you reform institutions that degenerate into nothingness from the moment politicians put their paws on them? People of my generation or older would remember a time when county councils performed duties that meant something to citizens.

For one, their daily-paid workers descended on villages and communities, and in a day or two they would clean all drains (using spades, hoes and forks-no brush-cutters then!) Those workers used to have the grassy-verges alongside roads look like modern-day lawns. And very important, in the intervals when they did not come, villagers did the needful to keep small towns and rustic villages in pristine conditions.

Today, municipal employees (I can't call them workers), on the rare occasions they are assigned such duties, turn up at the sites in their taxis or "PH" cars early. They lazily munch on breakfast as they gossip. They then spread out over a small area, cut the grass or clear the drains half-way, as if they are doing residents a favour. By nine o'clock they are gone-presumably to ply their taxis. It takes them a week to do the work their predecessors did in one day. And this lot is far better paid and enjoy vastly superior benefits than the exemplars of yesteryear.

As for the administrative staff that far outnumber those assigned "real" work, they have learned well how to ignore citizens whose taxes pay their salaries. Like their counterparts in the public service, gossiping among themselves, or on the phone, takes up most of their hours of employment.

Councillors and aldermen can never be located when they are needed by burgesses. Mayors and chairmen are tin-gods accessible only through impenetrable mazes of minions. Like their counterparts in Parliament, electors see them only during elections, or when good photo-opportunities allow them media exposure.

To compound the negativities of local government, their only other purpose is to cement the political (and racial) divide in the country. So we spend millions of dollars on local elections, knowing beforehand that in government strongholds the ruling party will control the councils while in opposition territory the latter will hold sway. Local government is an extended form of political patronage that costs taxpayers, with no benefits to be derived therefrom. In a country of less than 2,000 square miles with a population of 1.3 million, we do not need more ineffective, resource-sapping government.

Given the lawlessness that permeates every strata of the society today, what we need are not preening mayors and invisible councillors. Hell, I don't know that we even need an elected government. Since privatisation is the mantra of all politicians, why not award a contract to govern to the best bidder for service, even if it's Chinese? And fire their backsides when they fail to perform?

I suggest instead every village and urban community elect sheriffs who are qualified to carry guns and are proficient at using them. The sheriffs would then hire deputies, who, besides providing a presence in all communities which the police cannot do, would also handle matters like traffic congestions and infringements, lock up litterbugs and settle petty disputes.

Leave cleaning roads and clearing drains to CEPEP contractors and workers: they are doing a much better job than council workers! Let the central government handle road repairs and maintenance, public transport, deliver health and other essential national services.

Let's not make a high science of governance, not in a two-by-two country like ours. Local Government is a burdensome waste we can do without. Anyone missed them over the past two years? I rest my case.