HEADS of two PNM-led corporations shared Minister of Rural Affairs and Local Government Faris Al-Rawi’s excitement about local government reform, but two heads of UNC-led corporations wondered if reform could truly solve perennial problems of bureaucracy, speaking to Newsday on Thursday.
Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation head Kwasi Robinson said, “The entire local government is emphatically excited to have Minister Al-Rawi here with us, in terms of his approach to work.”
He recalled Al-Rawi’s recent meeting with local government leaders in San Fernando.
“Everybody was excited leaving that meeting, because the way his mind works is much different to what we had before. We are grateful for the support we had from the former minister but the way how Mr Al-Rawi is approaching it has us all excited.
“In terms of projects our main focus right now is the reform bill that is in Parliament and we are really excited to have Minister Al-Rawi head this.”
Asked his priorities for reform, Robinson said, “He (Al-Rawi) has indicated that he is focused on digital transformation which would help us with the transparency in procurement and that kind of stuff. So he has indicated his priority and as chairman I will follow the lead of the new minister.”
Point Fortin mayor Saleema McCree-Thomas said similar, recalling Al-Rawi’s years as an alderman.
“I am very excited to work with the new minister. He will bring some level of local government experience to the ministry, with his former experience in the Ministry of the Attorney General and the development of local government reform.
“I know that he too is very excited after meeting him in our introductory meeting at City Hall. I felt the excitement and the passion for him to start working with our local government, so I’m very eager to continue working with him.”
She eagerly awaited greater autonomy to develop the borough, more financial stability and the removal of bureaucracy.
“At local government, we are the ones on the ground daily, so we have that hands-on feeling with the persons out there, our burgesses in the community.”
She added, “I think in every change that happens in life there are challenges. However I see it creating more employment for our people in the different avenues local government reform will create.” She expected more jobs in the borough at at the corporation.
However, two UNC-led corporations reacted cautiously to Al-Rawi’s enthusiasm.
Penal-Debe Regional Corporation head Dr Allen Sammy quipped, “Is there any minister who will go into a portfolio and say, ‘Where the Hell they put me?’ I’d not expect anybody to go into a new portfolio and not express excitement.”
He then complained how hard it is to get funds such as to build a box drain. He said six months could lapse from a request to the Ministry of Local Government to the Ministry of Finance’s approval. “Nobody could be ‘excited’ by this.
“It doesn’t matter who is there. Unless there is a fundamental reform in the manner in which business is conducted between both parties – local government and the (Ministry of Finance’s) Budget Division – there is nothing to excite anybody.” Sammy alleged TT’s education system has not trained people to be thinkers to debate issues, so efforts to create change end up as “an awful journey.” He alleged an over-centralisation of certain services, such as a Ministry of Works and Transport unit at Penal being largely reassigned to Centeno.
“It is because the people upstairs are insecure and want to control everything.”
Couva-Tabaquite-Talparo Regional Corporation head Henry Awong, when asked if he felt energised by Al-Rawi, said, in his 19 years in local government as a practitioner, he had seen many green papers, white papers, and proposal for reform, “So I’m kind of immune from all of this talk until I really see action.”
“Yesterday was a good start, possibly. Both sides have their points of view. I’d support reform once it benefits the people.”
He reserved judgement until he sees things become more transparent.
“I am cautiously optimistic. Whatever we do must redound to the benefit of all people.”
Newsday asked how his burgesses were viewing the property tax, which Al-Rawi’s championed in Wednesday’s local government debate in the House of Representatives.
Awong replied, “I’m not sure now is a good time to implement the property tax because a lot of people are crying and bawling. Local councillors are on the ground and we hear the every day cry of the people, asking for everyday help with hampers or coming to my office. I’m not sure impose a property tax would benefit.
“If I’m renting, the landlord will increase my rent because he has to pay property tax and will seek to pass on that cost.” He also lamented each of his councillors has to service 10,000 burgesses, compared to about 3,000 in another corporation and compared to the THA where a seat may be “won by 1,000 votes.” Awong said, “We need fundamental change, not cosmetic.”
He said reform was not needed to fill critical job positions, lamenting that regional corporations lack town planners. He urged respect for local government, amid decades of talk about reform.
“We don’t need reform to say ‘Let’s ensure these corporations are well-equipped with these resources.’
“For a simple thing like fuel, we have to be clamouring and begging for funding.”