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Municipalities Reform Act passed

St George’s Act in the cards: Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Controversial legislation to turn Bermuda’s two municipalities into unelected quangos was passed by MPs this morning.

The decision will bring to an end a combined total of almost 450 years of local government in Hamilton and St George’s.

MPs voted 22-7 in favour of the legislation, with all present voting along party lines.

Walter Roban, the Minister of Home Affairs, who tabled the Bill, said that he would consider implementing an act specific to St George’s in the near future.

Charles Gosling, the Mayor of Hamilton, said last night that the decision to axe the corporations was a foregone conclusion “and has been one for almost a year”.

Mr Gosling added the move was a power grab by Mr Roban.

He said: “This minister is wanting to finish what he started in 2009 — to take control of the city and St George’s, control of the waterfront.

“His own waterfront plans released at the two public meetings confirm the grab.

“It’s as simple and transparent as that.”

Mr Gosling also branded consultation on the government takeover a “farce”.

He said: “Government’s own commissioned survey, set out to gather the best response from the Bermuda community, received an overwhelming shout to leave the municipalities alone.

“Did this have any response to their predetermined course of action? No, because it was predetermined.”

Mr Gosling added: “The Bill was already written, the plan in place and tabled just one week later, all to be done and dusted before the delayed election from a year ago.”

Quinell Francis, the Mayor of St George, said the decision by MPs was “disappointing”.

She added: “It doesn’t seem like the constituents of St George’s concerns were taken into consideration.”

Ms Francis said that East End residents were concerned that the ability to elect their own officials had been stripped away.

She added: “They’ll be appointed — and that’s not sitting well with many of the persons in the Town of St George.”

Ms Francis said that a poll had found that the majority of residents wanted the corporation left alone.

She added that she felt the views of local people had been ignored and that the vote had been “predictable”.

Renée Ming, the MP for St George’s North, said that the two corporations were so different that the Olde Towne should get its own piece of legislation.

She added: “We deserve to be governed by our own Act that gives us a level of independence and gives us a level of democracy. I have thrown down the gauntlet.”

Ms Ming said that the Corporation of St George’s had been struggling financially for many years and that could jeopardise the town’s Unesco World Heritage status.

She added: “The flip side to getting Unesco status is maintaining that status. It’s expensive and St George’s has struggled for some time, that’s no secret.

“I want to take my hat off to the Mayor of St George. We have brainstormed to concoct ways to make money but it has been extremely difficult.”

The legislation, piloted through the House of Assembly by Mr Roban will mean an end to local elected councillors, who will be replaced with government-appointed representatives.

Elected members of the municipalities will hold office until May 13, unless they resign in writing to the minister.

The minister will then appoint a mayor and eight councillors for each of the corporations to serve from May 14.

The mayor and four councillors will be people the minister is satisfied have the skills and experience to fulfil the role.

The other four councillors will be appointed by the minister on the recommendation of a selection committee.

That selection committee will be made up of three people, also appointed by the minister, who “reside, do business or work in the municipal area of the corporation”.

The committee will ask the public to nominate candidates and review the list before they make their recommendations to the minister.

Two amendments were made to the legislation — the first was the insertion of the word “requisite” in reference to skills of members appointed to office and a second amendment corrected a typo.

Sylvan Richards, the Shadow Minister of Home Affairs, said yesterday the legislation was an “affront to democracy”.

He added: “Those living and working within the boundaries of the corporations of Hamilton and St George have always enjoyed the right to have a say in how their taxes are spent by being able to vote for the people they want in power.

“Government is now intent on taking that basic and hard-fought right away by having appointed officials running the municipalities.

“It is an affront to democracy and everyone, not just those in Hamilton and St George, should be up in arms.”

He told MPs last night: “I think it’s about control and access to revenue streams and the waterfront — there are lots of people licking their chops over it. St George’s is a casualty of this.”

Craig Cannonier, the Leader of the Opposition, said he had alluded to the need for a separate Act for St George’s during a previous Premier’s Questions session.

“We are on the same page,” he said, directing his comments to Ms Ming.

But Mr Cannonier said that the people of St George’s would not forget the Government’s actions in clubbing them together with the Corporation of Hamilton, saying they would “carry this into the next election”. Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, the Shadow Minister of Health, likened the legislation to the Tucker’s Town land grab.

She said: “There is ultimately no difference in what will happen when we see how interesting the waterfront has become.”

Zane DeSilva, the Minister of Tourism and Transport, dismissed Ms Gordon-Pamplin’s comparison as “hogwash”.

He said of the motive behind the legislation: “We need a mayor and a councillor that follows the vision of the Progressive Labour Party. That’s what we need.”

Mr Roban commended Ms Ming and Kim Swan, St George’s West MP, for their passion and commitment to St George’s.

Speaking on their call for a St George’s Act, Mr Roban added: “I am happy to oblige that request with an undertaking. The work that is required to give St George’s its own individual Act will start once we complete this legislative process.”

Mr Roban added: “The work that this government is intending to do will start in the east. This government recognises the distinctness of the two corporations. I cannot stand and say that I did not hear the requests [by Ms Ming and Mr Swan]. I have spent a considerable amount of time listening to that and to the people of St George, despite the claims of lack of consultation. There has been considerable consultation going back to August and May of last year. We will continue to be talking to the people of St George.”

Mr Roban said there would likely be some level of ring-fencing of assets for Hamilton.

Hamilton elected a corporation in 1795 and St George’s set up its own local authority two years later.