The need for Municipal Councils
by Prof. Biman Prasad, NFP Leader
Opinion piece published in the Fiji Times on:
Saturday 20th March 2021
Savusavu is called the “hidden paradise” of Fiji. Sadly, the town council’s administration and operations do not reach that standard.
Hidden away from the prying eyes of visitors and most locals, its infrastructure machinery, which was donated by a foreign government for the upkeep of the town, is in a state of decay.
The expensive machinery - a compactor garbage truck and a backhoe – were donated by a foreign government. But they seem to have broken down and are now confined to a junkyard.
Little or no effort is being made by those who run the town to get them fixed.
The result is blocked drains, because of the broken down and neglected backhoe, and deterioration of garbage collection services. Yet garbage collection fees have reportedly increased from $24 to $82 per annum for commercial properties.
The old market was demolished in 2018. The promise to build a new one remains a promise. In the meantime market vendors work in a temporary market without proper facilities.
This is what I discovered in my conversations in Savusavu for two days last week, meeting a wide cross-section of the community including ratepayers and citizens of the town.
All the residents want is municipal elections to choose their representatives so that their council is accountable.
The system of government appointed and controlled Special Administrators and Chief Executive Officers, micro-managed by the Local Government Ministry and Minister – the practice for the last 12 years - is strangling ratepayers and citizens.
Deeper into the quagmire
Municipal councils were dissolved in 2009. The military government did not follow the Local Government Act to hold municipal elections scheduled for 2008, because it did not want democracy at local government level – usually regarded as the second tier of government.
Instead, the military government inserted a new clause in the Local Government Act allowing it to appoint Special Administrators.
This, according to the current government, is “genuine democracy”!
Depriving ratepayers and citizens the right to choose their representatives, preventing them from public information like Minutes of all Council meetings that were made available each month and curtailing their fundamental right to exercise their vote freely. Is this Fiji First’s version of democracy and empowering people?
The same FijiFirst rule book has been enforced on cane growers, the largest and most important stakeholders in the sugar industry, for almost 12 years.
The result – a decline in cane grower numbers by more than 6,000, decline in sugarcane and sugar production by almost 50% despite the millions of Government dollars being poured into the industry, and a technically insolvent Fiji Sugar Corporation.
They say “money doesn’t buy love”. Nor can it rescue the sugar industry and FSC.
And micro-management of municipal councils by Special Administrators will not rescue town and city councils from the quagmire.
For 10 years after 2009, each municipal council was headed by a Special Administrator. Two such Administrators later became Members of Parliament for Fiji First.
The Mayor-turned Administrator of Ba, Mr Bala, was elected to Parliament in 2014 and appointed Local Government Minister. He immediately promised to make local government elections happen. He said there was no reason why it couldn’t be held as general elections had been completed.
But soon after, the promise changed to “review the Local Government Act first, elections later”.
On and on went the so-called “review” that nobody knew about. No ratepayers and citizens were consulted or invited to make submissions.
Suddenly, 2018 general elections arrived. Post-election, we had a new Local Government Minister. Mrs Premila Kumar seems to talk about everything and anything – corruption, “market managers” and the like – while she micro-manages her way through towns and cities, blaming everyone else for the problems.
For almost two years, a “panel of Administrators” has replaced the single Administrator policy, but seem only to have complicated the enforcement of misguided Ministry decisions.
The victims of these irrational and dictatorial decisions are the town and city workers and ratepayers. But this government is least bothered.
Blame to escape wrath
The Minister, in her former role as Consumer Council Chief Executive Officer, was vociferous against Special Administrator decisions after 2009, most notably in 2011 and 2012 when she strongly objected to rate hikes.
However, as Minister, she has made an about-turn and turned a blind eye to the recent rate hikes in at least four cities and towns. Rates, she said, was the role of Special Administrators!
Yet this government has been micro-managing towns and cities since their elected councils were dissolved. If the Government wants to run them, it is Government’s responsibility to ensure that views and concerns of ratepayers and citizens are heard and considered.
Any government that is conscious of its social responsibility to the people will always try to ease financial burdens of the people, especially during the current economic crisis exacerbated by Covid-19.
How does the Minister and the government she serves expect ratepayers to meet the increase in rates? It is the height of governance immorality to implement increases on any fines, fees, charges and rates and burden people during these difficult times.
The Municipal Market Regulations fiasco seems to be another Ministerial disaster. Who in her Ministry made the Regulations publicly available and gave them to individual market vendors’ associations? The same regulations, she said, which “were not aligned with the Government’s vision”?
Who was she blaming for the release of the Regulations by her own Ministry – and why?
Almost a week has lapsed since I called on the Minister to come clean on the issue and explain what happened. She says nothing. In this case, silence is not golden – it is rotten.
Ratepayers and citizens have suffered enough pain, misery and bureaucracy since the dissolution of all municipal councils in 2009 and total control of municipalities vested in Government through its appointed Administrators.
The NFP firmly believes that in any functioning democracy, people ought to have a say in the policies that affect them, including in their cities and towns.
We believe these special administrators have presided over the most incompetent local government practices in Fiji’s history. No group of people has been more out of touch with ordinary ratepayers.
Local government elections provided a platform for young people to engage with systems of governance, creating a natural progression into national politics.
So to abandon local government elections has left a void that must be filled if we are to inspire the next generation of leaders to run for public office.
There is nothing stopping the Government from holding elections except for their apparent lack of respect for genuine, representative democracy at a local level.
Claiming to be “reviewing” the Local Government Act before holding elections is a lame excuse and an affront to democracy. Those claims have been going on for seven years now.
Enough is enough.