Municipality interference reeks of overkill
“It’s déjà vu all over again”
— Yogi Berra
The more things change the more they stay the same.
What I am referring to is the recent announcement by Walter Roban regarding the Government’s desire to take full control of the municipalities of the City of Hamilton and the Town of St George.
You may recall a few years ago that the previous Progressive Labour Party administration made an unsuccessful attempt to take over the corporations. When that failed, it settled instead on strangling the municipalities by removing their right to charge wharfage, replacing this lost income with a government grant that was insufficient to meet their needs.
This had the presumably desired effect of ensuring that the corporations had to come cap in hand to the Government to meet their obligations in terms of infrastructure. Nine years later, the PLP is back for another bite at the cherry.
Not long after the One Bermuda Alliance became government, we returned the right to collect wharfage back to the municipalities and the Government grant was removed, thereby giving the corporations more financial independence. In St George, with the arrival of new cruise ships — which the OBA secured during its tenure plus the introduction of a heritage tax — the Olde Towne has grown from strength to strength.
So, the question has to be asked: why is the Government so keen on tearing apart two corporations that have, all in all over their respective existences, done excellent work in promoting Bermuda and servicing their municipalities?
Why is there only a ten-day consultation period being given for the public to weigh in on the two options that the Government is considering imposing on the municipalities, both of which will ultimately mean the end of the corporations of Hamilton and St George as entities run by the people, for the people?
Roban has essentially said that the Bermuda Government will be better at maintaining the infrastructure of the municipalities and that if the Government has control via a quango or by way of being subsumed into government, it can set the economic agenda for the corporations.
However, the simple facts are these: both corporations have traditionally done a better job than the Government at maintaining infrastructure, collecting garbage, promoting their respective municipalities, hosting events and serving their constituents. Simply put, can we really expect a government that cuts trash pick-up to once a week to be suddenly able to collect garbage in the City of Hamilton every night?
Under the existing Municipalities Act, the Government already has the final say on planning legislation, so it can already plan for various economic zones. It can also give guidance for spending of the heritage tax in St George, it can direct how any grants are spent, and it can take stewardship of the corporations if government directions are not followed.
In fact, most if not all of what the Government supposedly wishes to achieve with its proposed changes can be done already by way of using the existing legislation.
So, again, what is the deal? Why is the Government so desperate to interfere with two corporations that work?
The answer is obvious: control, pure and simple. This government is totally obsessed with it.
As examples, look at the moves the Government has already made to gain control of the Bermuda Tourism Authority and the Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission. They can’t help themselves.
No doubt subsuming the corporations into government will assist its balance sheet as a result of having more valuable real estate on its books, which, given the huge hole in the current balance sheet, will help.
Or, perhaps, is it really about control of the waterfront and the eventual awarding of contracts? Or perhaps the sitting minister just does not like the personalities of some people at the two corporations. Whatever the real reason for this travesty, it doesn’t pass the smell test.
Given that there is only a very short consultation period, I think it’s safe to assume that the Government has already made up its mind about what it intends to do. I suspect there is a Bill already prepared in draft form that can be hastily tabled in Parliament, given that previously postponed elections need to be held in the next few months.
There is more to this yarn than we are being told.
It is the Opposition’s view that a local government Act should be drafted, which would modernise the relationship between the Government, municipalities and the parish councils.
Such an Act would be reflective of the changing face of the City of Hamilton and the Town of St George, and would set the foundation for truly collaborative opportunities.
In the spirit of collaboration, the OBA would be willing to work alongside the PLP to make this a reality. Destroying hundreds of years of history simply to satisfy the ego of a chosen few would be a terrible mistake.
• Sylvan Richards is the Shadow Minister of Home Affairs and the Environment, and the MP for Hamilton South (Constituency 7)