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OBA plan sweeping municipalities reforms

A reform package being proposed by Home Affairs Minister Michael Fahy would hand Government strong powers over the municipalities.

Both corporations would have to seek ministerial approval for any land leases exceeding 21 years, which would then need to be approved by the Legislature.

But wharfage revenue and port dues would be returned to the municipalities.

Senator Fahy, who has made no secret of his concerns about governance issues at the City of Hamilton, has met with members of the Corporation of St George and the Corporation of Hamilton to discuss his proposals ahead of tabling amendments to municipalities legislation on Friday.

Sen Fahy told The Royal Gazette yesterday that his discussions with the municipalities had been “productive”.

“We think its prudent and sensible to have greater governmental influence and ability to give directions if necessary to the City of Hamilton and St George's,” the Minister said.

The Minister would have final approval over any municipal resolution for the amendment or introduction of Municipal Ordinances as well as a requirement that all resolutions be vetted by the Attorney General “for anything repugnant,” according to a consultation memo obtained by this newspaper.

The raft of changes would also hand the Minister statutory responsibility for final approval of any scheme involving property exceeding $1 million.

But it also contains some sweeteners for the corporations. St George would get a UNESCO World Heritage Fund and, effective April 2014, both municipalities would get back a key revenue stream — wharfage and port dues — which had been taken away when reforms were enacted in 2011.

Returning wharfages would plug a $3 million revenue shortfall from the City of Hamilton's cash flow.

The Minister had also considered legislation which would have given him the power to convene an independent committee to “investigate and determine, allegation of wrongdoing in matters such as: maladministration, corruption, electoral improprieties, financial misconduct and violations of the code of conduct and ethics by council or officer of the municipalities,” and dissolve the Corporation according to the memo.

That, said the Minister yesterday, had been dropped.

Other changes being sought are the introduction of a “framework for good governance” to include a code of ethics and conduct, a municipal council meeting guide, financial instructions, a municipal assets management plan and a contract and procurement guide, the memo states.

And the Minister wants to restore a form of the business vote, effective at the next municipal election, by giving ratepayers the right to a single vote.

But elections will be held on a dual ballot system — one for businesses and one for residents.

Regulations will be drafted to outline the specifics such as how many councillors will be represented by each ballot.

Also effective at the next election would be the repeal of the Deputy Mayor Act 1935 to do away with the deputy mayor title.

And the title of alderman will be done away with so that city councils will consist of just eight councillors and the mayor.

A quorum of five councillors would be stipulated for corporation meetings.

Currently, the quorum is two aldermen and at least two councillors but aldermen have more power as the law provides that resolutions must be approved by at least two aldermen and the Mayor to be valid.

In line with the Government boards system, a stipend would be introduced

Asked what was driving the reforms, the Minister told The Royal Gazette the current system “doesn't work as effectively as it could.”

The Corporation of St George had to be given funds from his Ministry's coffers because it was unable to sustain itself, he offered as an example.

And, the Minister said, Government had to have a say in the progress of major developments in Hamilton, such as the waterfront redevelopment project.

“By having the authority to give assent to ordinances and having the ability to say no, certain agreements have to come before Parliament. That gives more control to the people that have been elected to run Bermuda, not just the City of Hamilton,” Sen Fahy said.

“When the previous Government had started the process by removing wharfage it is very clear that the previous Government was on the road to turning the municipalities into quangos.”

The new proposals would create a “more modernised structure overall,” he said. They come after a series of public consultation meetings earlier this summer which were criticised as being inadequate, and more recent consultations with the municipalities themselves.

In May, Opposition MP Walton Brown characterised the reforms as a “barely concealed power grab”.

Sen Fahy rejected that characterisation yesterday saying the former Government's plans for the municipalities would have resulted in the “ultimate power grab.”

Michael Fahy

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Published September 18, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated September 18, 2013 at 9:06 am)

OBA plan sweeping municipalities reforms

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