Opening salvoes in bid to axe Corporations
The Corporation of Hamilton yesterday claimed the proposed abolition of the municipalities was a misguided attempt to destroy a perceived “white oligarchy”.
The Corporation argued in the Supreme Court that amendments to the Municipalities Reform Act – which would replace municipal elections with a quango picked by a Government Minister and his or her appointees – was an unlawful power grab.
But the Attorney-General’s Chambers argued that the interests of the island needed to be considered, given the small number of voters in municipal elections.
Mark Diel, for the Corporation, said it was clear that the motivation behind the legislation was to create an organisation that would “do as it is told”.
He added that view was echoed in the House of Assembly by Zane DeSilva, a Government MP.
Mr DeSilva told the House: “We need a Mayor and councillors that follow the vision of the Progressive Labour Party. That’s what we need.”
Mr Diel also quoted Kathy-Lynn Simmons, the Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs, who said Government wanted to “dismantle the oligarchy”.
He added: “It’s quite clear that she was talking about this legislation, that there is a perception – we would say misperception – that somehow the Corporation of Hamilton is ruled by some sort of white oligarchy and the intention of this Government is, to use her expression, dismantle that.
“The concept of the white oligarchy is just demonstrably wrong, but what it does do is point out by no less than the respondent herself the regrettable purpose for the legislation, which is to dismantle the Corporation.”
Mr Diel said the legislation would allow the Government to take control over the Corporation by removing the voting process and replacing it with ministerial appointments.
He added: “The Minister not only has the ability to do that, but the ability to replace any of them at whim.
“It is not an issue of co-operation, it’s an issue of control.”
Mr Diel said the Corporation was created for a public purpose – to assist its ratepayers – not a Government purpose and Government control would amount to an asset grab.
But Greg Howard, of the Attorney-General’s Chambers, said the court should focus on the legislation, rather than the views of legislators.
He said only a “very small number of voters” were involved in municipal elections, but the whole island was affected by the results.
Mr Howard added: “If the interests of the island as a whole are to be taken into account, then a vote cast by individuals throughout the island, whether they live in the Corporation or not, is enough of an exercise of a franchise that it gives them the authority that they need.
“The point is that it is just a very small group in a very small island, and it doesn’t make sense to have the whole procedure behind an election in such a small municipality.”
Mr Howard said that no ratepayers had taken legal action on the proposed loss of their voting rights.
He added: “Anyone with a significant interest can take a matter to court, but in fact they haven’t.
“While the Corporation may point to the ratepayers and any rights they might have, they are not acting in a representative capacity – they are making a bold statement that ratepayers should have a say, but they have a say in the national affairs.“
He added that there were restrictions to the Minister’s power to remove Mayors and councillors under the legislation.
Mr Howard argued the legislation would extend the powers of the Corporation by allowing the responsible minister to change the definition of “municipal purpose” for projects in the best interest of the island.
The requirement for the Corporation to act with a “municipal purpose” came to a head in a legal action over a financial guarantee for a hotel project in Hamilton.
The courts ruled that the guarantee was void because it did not have such a purpose.
Mr Howard said that the legislation was a bid by the Government to give the Corporation greater powers with oversight by the Government.
He said: “It provides that in order to have those powers, the Corporation needs to have more central Government oversight.
“Contrary to the Corporation’s view that this is somehow narrowing the authority of the Corporation, it actually gives more scope for actions.”
The Municipalities Act 2019 was approved by the House of Assembly, but rejected by the Senate after independent senators voted against it.
The legislation was designed to turn the Corporations of Hamilton and St George into quangos.
The minister would appoint the mayors and half of the councillors and the other councillors would be appointed by the minister on the recommendation of a selection committee.
The selection committee would be made up of three people, also appointed by the minister, who “reside, do business or work in the municipal area of the Corporation”.