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MPs back sweeping reforms of municipalities

Sweeping reforms to Bermuda's two municipalities were approved by MPs last night after a passionate debate in the House of Assembly.

Public Safety Minister Michael Dunkley steered the Municipalities Amendment Bill 2013 through Parliament, but Government came under heavy criticism from Opposition MPs, who described the changes as “repugnant”.

The Bill introduces a slew of amendments to the operation of the Corporation of Hamilton and St George's due to take effect in 2015, including giving business owners in the two towns a vote in municipal elections through a “hybrid” version of proportional representation.

The act also amends the hierarchy of officialdom, replacing deputy mayors and aldermen with councillors.

The Bill gives the Government strong powers over the corporations, with sales of land held by the municipalities and leases exceeding 21 years having to be submitted to the Minister and approved by Parliament.

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

Mr Dunkley defended the changes, saying that the framework of the municipalities was “outdated and does not reflect modern good governance”.

And he defended the extension of the franchise to include ratepayers, claiming that they had “a right to representation of their interests”.

“This is not a return to the historic property vote — there's no threat of a ratepayer advantage over residents,” he said, adding that the voice of business owners would “compliment” that of residents.

But Shadow Home Affairs Minister Walter Roban described the voting change as “repugnant” saying that it was “not in keeping with the principals of democracy”.

“A franchise should be clear and universal and absolute,” he said.

“This change is not in keeping with this principle and we're absolutely against this — the Government's reasons doesn't hold water. Where Government saw this system as rational and legitimate I don't now — we got rid of it because it is not. I don't see how they can suggest that any remnant of a ratepayer vote is a legitimate form of voting.

“A franchise should be clear and simple. It should be universal, not just palatable for the elite of society. We find the proposals repugnant to the principals of democracy.

Shadow Finance Minister David Burt declared that the franchise change was evidence that the OBA was “returning to the roots of the UBP and the UBP's dark past”.

Opposition MP Rolfe Commissiong said: “The UBP part of the One Bermuda Alliance is certainly shining through here. This bill is abominable. This is an abuse of Parliamentary supremacy. Might does not make right. This is shameful and extremist.

“We have a Government that is more interested in advancing the interests of its privileged base than doing what's right for the Bermudian.

“This bill is a regression for all of the reasons cited by previous speakers on this side of the House,” he said.

“We have seen the fact that mostly black residents of back of town had finally come out of marginalisation with respect to city voting and were able to exercise self-determination. It was a great night for Bermuda.”

Deputy Opposition Leader Derrick Burgess wanted to know what's the rush in getting the legislation passed when there are so many “other things to be rushed” in his view.

“There is no rush to get the retailers to put controls on the price of food, or to get Belco to bring their rates down. There's no rush on health insurance, that's increased by 20 percent. And there's no rush to go the banks and say 'look you guys need to lower your interest rates so people can pay their mortgages.

“Those are the critical things that we should be addressing in this House. In these difficult times we need to be concentrating on the people,” he said.

Despite the history he said the Corporation of Hamilton is doing a good job. And he asserted that the previous city administration put $1 million in trust because “they knew the Government was coming to take over”.

Opposition Leader Marc Bean said in the final analysis, the One Bermuda Alliance will be judged not by their words by their actions.

“Right not the OBA is standing in judgement and what was hidden is now revealed. This is a sulphuric piece of legislation,” he said. “It smells worse than the worse part of my constituency at Warwick Pond. It stinks to high heaven, it's unbelievable.

“This is the worse and lowest form of governance that we have seen for some time. This is a legislative travesty of epic proportions.

“The late Dr Roosevelt Brown would have turned this honourable chamber upside down if they would have dared to bring a piece of legislation like this to this chamber,” said Mr Bean.

“Such is the gravity of what is being proposed today.”

But Health and Seniors Minister Patricia Gordan-Pamplin refuted Opposition claims that the bill was a backward step.

Hoping to bring some “calm and sensitivity” to the debate, Ms Gordon-Pamplin pointed out that the amendment upheld the democratic principal of “no taxation without representation”.

“Ratepayers have no say — I don't know how right the Opposition believes that to be but in my book, if I pay some money, I want to know how it is being spent,” she said.

“I want to have a voice and the only way they can have a say as ratepayers is the same way in which taxpayers have a say which is through electing representatives.

“They [the PLP] took away people's votes so now what we're trying to do bring something new in place to allow ratepayers who are paying the lion's share of money to have some say and to be represented. There's nothing sinister, it's pretty straightforward.

“We want things to be fair and if that's a foreign concepts in the eyes of the Opposition, we're in a really sad state in this country.”

The Minister added that only Bermudian — not foreign — business owners who are on the electoral register will be able to vote.

“We're not going to have aliens coming in to make sure that the city flies up on some cloud and there's no control by anyone who is right-thinking,” she said.

Accusing the Opposition of scaremongering and politicking, she said: “I think we need to stand up and say enough is enough — put the facts out there and let the facts state that this Government will continue to make difficult decisions.”

City Hall: MPs last night looked set to pass sweeping reforms for the Corporations of Hamilton and St George's

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Published October 03, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated October 03, 2013 at 8:59 am)

MPs back sweeping reforms of municipalities

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