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Business owners lose the right to vote in municipal elections

MPs yesterday hammered the final nail into the coffin of the property vote, abolishing the right of business owners to cast a ballot in municipal elections.

An order allowing only residents to vote in elections held by the Corporation of Hamilton and Corporation of St George was approved in the House of Assembly.

Deputy Premier Derrick Burgess, who tabled the legislation, described the change as the culmination of a “long and courageous process” and said it would ensure proper democracy in both municipalities, where business owners could previously have multiple votes if they owned more than one property.

“Democratic change is not always easy,” he said. “Elections held in a democratic country is not about any special privileges to a business vote. It's about one man, one vote, of equal value.”

Not everyone agreed. MPs from both opposition parties claimed it was a form of taxation without representation, unconstitutional and unfairly removed the rights of business owners to have a say in the way things are run.

But Mr Burgess said: “This bill is not contrary to the Constitution of Bermuda. It's in line with the Constitution.”

Government backbencher Walter Lister said taxation was not the issue. “It's not a matter of money, it's a matter of people, that's what democracy is,” he said.

“It's a battle of people, people, people. When you start to put money ahead of people you may as well throw democracy out the window. It's not rocket science, it's very simple, very easy.”

Mr Lister described the order as “a bill of opportunity that will give everyone a fair shake”.

He said the City of Hamilton had for too long been run by too few people. “I think the time has come for anybody in any capacity to participate,” he said.

He insisted the change wasn't about getting back at anyone for past injustices, as critics had claimed.

“I have been around a lot longer than many people in this House,” said the 69-year-old MP. “I don't carry animosity in my heart. I don't hold no grudges against people who have obstructed my progress and I have known many of them.

“But we must now move ahead with this piece of legislation.”

Bermuda Democratic Alliance MP

Mark Pettingill said he was in favour of municipal reform but there had to be balance and not simply an agenda of “sticking it to the old boys' network” which traditionally ran Hamilton's City Hall.

He said as a property owner in the capital he paid taxes and ought to get a vote.

“Not everyone has the same type of interest in a municipality and not everyone pays taxes in Hamilton. Maybe I make the decision now I'm not paying that tax,” he said, adding that he was speaking hypothetically.

“I'm not going to pay the tax and I'm going to go down and throw my box of tea in the harbour here.”

Mr Pettingill said extending the franchise was the right thing to do but it had to be done to “make it right for all of our people, all of our Bermudian people”.

“It's different to the issue of one man, one vote, which I greatly supported and support. It's greatly different to where we were and where we want to be as Bermudians.

“It's greatly different to what the old boys' network did and what they caused and the injustices that they wrought to where we want to lead the country going forward.”

The Municipalities (Election) Order 2011 approved yesterday brings into effect changes already made to the way the Corporations conduct their elections under the Municipalities Reform Act 2010.

That controversial piece of legislation gave all residents on the electoral register the right to vote, repealing the original 1923 Act, and abolishing multiple votes.

The order applies the Parliamentary Election Act to municipal elections, meaning they will be run in the same way as national elections.

Anyone “ordinarily resident in a municipal area” will be allowed to vote and electors' names will be taken from the annual Parliamentary Register, which is compiled in June.

Shadow Public Administration Reform Minister

John Barritt said Government had caused a conundrum, as the legislation did not address arguments left over from the last debate.

He said: “Our city is comprised of businesses and property owners but they are not ordinarily resident.

“These are the people who pay the greatest taxes to the Corporation [of Hamilton], the people who contribute the most but they have no say. Those who contribute less have all the say.

“Businesses are the engines that help drive a city, but without any sort of say or influence they won't get on board with different programmes…this is something that may happen and won't be helpful as we try to do big things in terms of the economy.”

Mr Barritt said elsewhere this would cause a revolution but in Bermuda it would “create the usual apathy and people will pay no mind”.

He went on to suggest some residents were registered at properties within municipal boundaries without living in them. He said with only about 500 voters in the city of Hamilton votes would be valuable and would lead to “an incentive to stay incorrectly registered”.

Mr Barritt accused the Government of “rushing things through” saying that was when “mistakes and errors occur”.

He said it was “an unusual piece of legislation” and it was “impossible to understand” without three other Acts beside you.

He said of the order: “It's as challenging as doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.”

Mr Barritt said he would have liked separate Acts to govern parliamentary elections and municipal elections rather than trying to “graft one Act into another”. He said this could have been done with “a little time and effort”.

Opposition MP

Louise Jackson said it was “revolting” that as a part-owner of a business in Hamilton she would have to pay taxes without a vote.

She said: “Taxation without representation is what we have happening here. The end of a democratic process could disenfranchise people at the stroke of a pen.

“In this economic recession we want to encourage businesses rather than swat them down and say they are less than nothing and have nothing to say, just give us the money, show us the money.”

Mrs Jackson added that St George wasn't being called a “ghost town” because of the lack of residents, but rather because of the businesses moving out.

The Shadow Health Minister said she feared it would be “the last straw” for Hamilton as businesses would move to alternative premises so they wouldn't have to hand over money to the Corporation.

Government MP

Wayne Furbert dismissed the Opposition's “weak arguments” saying he knew he wouldn't be able to sell his “paninis and smoothies” outside of Hamilton.

He said: “I am a businessman in the city of Hamilton, I will not be able to vote, I understand the rules of the game.

“It's not going to force anyone from Front Street or Reid Street to move. They are making money and they know tourists aren't going to go to Hamilton Parish.”

Mr Furbert added that he supported the Government for “pushing forward” and believed “we are moving in the right direction”.

Government MP

Dale Butler, the only member of the House to live in the City of Hamilton, said he was pleased residents would be able to “make themselves known at the polls”.

He said the Corporation of Hamilton was “bending over backwards” to work hard for everyone, including both businesses and residents. He said they were “opening up their hearts to democracy”.

Environment Minister

Walter Roban said he was “very pleased” people would be “doubly privileged” to vote for their city and country.

He said: “It is my hope that this will bring greater awareness to voters. They will realise that they matter and have their own interest heightened in the election process.

“The few dominating the many is a privilege that had to be removed. These changes should have been brought forward more than 40 years ago.”

Shadow Finance Minister

Bob Richards complained the changes were “a pay back thing” and accused the Government of “over-compensating” for the days when “the pendulum swung too far the other way”.

He said: “If you want to have a true democracy what Government should be doing is taking away the ability for the Corporation to levy taxes at all.

“You can't have a halfway house and say you are democratising the system. Take away the Corporation's ability to levy taxes and put it all on central Government. Then you are not violating taxation without representation.”

Mr Richards added: “The law of logic is not applying here. What we're doing is moving democracy backwards.”

Deputy Speaker

Wayne Perinchief said not allowing business leaders to vote was “nonsense” as it was “like robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

The Government MP said: “To have someone such as Sir John Swan build a lovely huge building which is iconic in Hamilton then not have a vote himself is just not correct. He is being disenfranchised for not living in Hamilton.

“Businesses in some shape or form should be allowed to vote.”

Education Minister Dame

Jennifer Smith said the original Municipalities Act dated back to 1923 “when we did not have the vote”.

She said: “The municipalities are an anachronism. They go back to an earlier time, a time before central government.”

The St George's North MP pointed out that residents in St George paid taxes to the Corporation there for years to get a vote, even though they got nothing in the way of services for their money. She said they eventually stopped paying.

The former Premier said the municipalities should really be abolished as “there's no reason for them any more” but change was slow to happen in Bermuda.

Opposition Leader

Kim Swan echoed Mrs Jackson's argument that Government should be trying to encourage businesses, especially in St George.

“We should be coming with the reverse of this [order]. We should be coming with legislation that says to businesses ‘we want you in this town like never before'.

“Instead, we are sending the signal that in modern day Bermuda it's all about ‘get even-ship'.”

He said today's business owners shouldn't be punished for the shameful behaviour of business owners in the past.”

Shadow Transport Minister

Charlie Swan said it was best not to let emotion come into play when making decisions, as logic was more helpful.

He suggested the order breached the Human Rights Act and asked: “Is it fair to tax people but not allow them to vote.”

Public Works Minister Mr Burgess ended the debate by pointing out that a person who owned a business in, for example, Hamilton Parish, but lived in Somerset, didn't expect to get a vote in Hamilton Parish.

“All we are trying to do is make it right,” he said. “It's not no payback, as one would have you think.”

He said the Corporation of Hamilton was not a country club and shouldn't be run like one, hence the need for the order.

Other changes it brings in include that election candidates will not be able to run in municipal elections for more than one vacancy or if they are nominated as a candidate for the House of Assembly or Senate.

Municipal elections will no longer take place on any day the Corporations determine. They will have to take place on a week day in the week following the first Sunday in May. Elections will be held every third year with an official election writ being placed in the Official Gazette.

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Useful websites: www.gov.bm, www.cityhall.bm

Photo by Glenn Tucker ¬ Dame Jennifer Smith, Minister of Education, addresses the media during a press conference held at the Cabinet Building about the Budget of 2011 - 2012 on Friday 18, 2011.

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Published March 26, 2011 at 9:01 am (Updated March 26, 2011 at 9:00 am)

Business owners lose the right to vote in municipal elections

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