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City of Hamilton fights to overturn bid to abolish it

Hamilton City Hall (File photograph)

The City of Hamilton continued its battle for survival yesterday in the face of a government plan to turn both of the island’s municipalities into quangos and end local elections.

The Supreme Court earlier ruled that the Municipalities Reform Act was not unconstitutional.

But Sir Jeffrey Jowell, the counsel for the city, told the Court of Appeal yesterday that Chief Justice Narinder Hargun had not properly handled the constitutional complaints.

Sir Jeffrey said: “The Chief Justice very much located this case in the realm of ordinary legislative regulatory activity, not willing at all to intervene in anything that he regarded as political.

“In that way, the whole judgment rather skews the issues away from the constitutional into the area of political opinion.”

Sir Jeffrey added that the legislation amounted to an “abolition” of the Corporation of Hamilton and it should not have been watered down to a question of political opinion.

He added: “The abolition of elections – people who have been residents in the City of Hamilton for generations now being told they must accept an essentially appointed body that is going to express their so-called voice, where there will be no direct voice whatsoever – that is the reason I am trying to locate this matter in constitutional principle and human rights, specifically the right of expression.”

Sir Jeffrey said the legislation would result in a deprivation of property from the municipality.

The legislation was approved by the House of Assembly but rejected by the Senate. The Upper House, however, can only delay legislation, not halt it.

Sir Jeffrey told the court that “deprivation of property” did not necessarily mean that a property had been taken, but it could still have a major effect on the property owner.

Sir Jeffrey said that the corporation would be required to get government permission to sell its property under the legislation and the relevant minister could order the corporation to give over its property.

He added: “It certainly permits that kind of compulsory taking – and that would be a compulsory taking.”

Sir Jeffrey said the Government had pushed forward with several earlier amendments which gave the minister greater powers over the municipalities and “neutered” them.

He added: “The proposed reform act then goes even further by proposing that municipal elections are abolished.”

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 – also appointed by the minister – under the legislation.

Sir Jeffrey said: “The effects of the amendment acts culminating in the 2019 Bill is to place the corporation and its assets entirely under the control of government.

“We regard this at least as a deprivation of the property and, at most, a taking.”

He said the corporation saw the action as a “strangulation” or a “land grab” and the removal of elections was an “invasion of free political speech”.

Sir Jeffrey added: “This actually removes the voice of the voters and dismisses the existing councillors.

“It is very much in the realm of political speech and offends in all sorts of other ways a democratic situation, even if one believes that the legislature can do absolutely anything it wishes to do.”

The Corporation of Hamilton asked the Supreme Court earlier this year to find that the legislation was unconstitutional because it would grant government “overwhelming” control over the municipalities and their properties.

But the Government argued that the municipalities would retain control of their properties as quangos and the legislation would improve co-operation between the corporations and the Government.

Mr Justice Hargun ruled in April that the Government claiming management control over the corporation did not amount to deprivation of property and the corporation’s constitutional claim could not succeed.

He added: “Beyond that, the merits of any legislation belonging to the realms of politics are not the proper subject matter of judicial determinations.”

The hearing continues.

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