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MPs vote to postpone municipal elections

Walton Brown, the Minister of Home Affairs

The municipal elections will be postponed for a year while consultation takes place after legislation was passed in the House of Assembly last night.

The Municipalities Amendment Act will also give the Minister of Home Affairs more power over Hamilton and the Corporation of St George.

Walton Brown, who tabled the Bill last week, said talks with the corporations, residents and ratepayers would determine the best way to strengthen and modernise municipal governance.

He said that consultations with the corporations had already begun and public meetings would start in May.

He explained that the Act would allow the minister to authorise public officers to attend meetings of the corporation, to give directions and take stewardship, or temporary control, of a corporation in certain circumstances if he believes it is in the best interest of Bermuda.

He said the Bill sought to amend the act to provide for the next ordinary municipal election to be held in 2019 and not 2018.

Mr Brown faced criticism for comments he made three years ago attacking then minister Michael Fahy of the One Bermuda Alliance for taking more control of the corporation.

Describing the comments as “hyperbolic” Mr Brown said: “The OBA denied rights and privileges and attacked democracy. We are ensuring the process is inherently democratic.”

Grant Gibbons, the shadow economic development minister, described the move as a “seizure of assets for a period of time”.

He said Mr Brown was “bulldozing through amendments, which give the minister power to effectively take over and control, under the stewardship provision, certain assets of the corporation for unspecified periods of time”.

Dr Gibbons added: “And I think we all know what we are talking about here, we are talking about the waterfront. The minister really needs to explain himself here.”

But Mr Brown insisted that the ownership of the assets and development would not be transferred to the Government.

He said: “Where the minister takes stewardship, the management of the development will be overseen by the Government but the asset will still be owned by the municipality in question.”

Dr Gibbons also raised concerns about an “extraordinary lack of consultation from a minister in terms of how he has handled the introduction of this Bill”.

But Mr Brown countered: “Consultation will take place over the next 12 months. I don’t know what people fail to gather, but there will be an extensive consultation period.”

Dr Gibbons responded that this was consultation on the minister’s terms and not on the terms of the corporations.

He also had it confirmed that the minister can retain control of stewardship of a project, including the waterfront, for as long as he deems fit following the removal of the word “temporarily” from a clause.

OBA MP Patricia Gordon-Pamplin said the corporations should continue as they were and the elections should be held as scheduled.

Meanwhile, Progressive Labour Party backbencher Renée Ming, who pointed out that the Act dated back to 1923, said it was “long overdue”.

PLP backbencher Rolfe Commissiong said that the Corporation of Hamilton had been “the privileged preserve of a very small number of mostly white merchants for many years. The notion of the minister acting in an underhand way — there’s no comparison to the former minister Michael Fahy. Give the minister the benefit of the doubt.”

Shadow Minister for Health and Seniors Susan Jackson slammed the Government for the short notice given in announcing the move.

“The Corporation of Hamilton is most deserving of an apology. To see the lack of timeliness in the delay of the elections and changing of legislation is too short,” she said.

She also voiced concern that “parochial” matters would not be dealt with as swiftly due to bureaucracy in ministries and a preoccupation with the waterfront project could cause.

David Burt, the Premier, said the present system was “not fit for purpose”. He added: “I’m sure that members opposite want to see projects move forward and to see economic growth.”