Mayor says fight to save City of Hamilton will go to Privy Council
The battle to save the Corporation of Hamilton is to go to Bermuda’s highest court of appeal, The Royal Gazette can reveal.
The Corporation of Hamilton is to lodge an appeal with the Privy Council in London in a last-ditch attempt to block government plans to dissolve the island’s two municipalities and turn them into unelected quangos.
Charles Gosling, the Mayor of Hamilton, said: “We made the decision a couple of weeks ago which we reaffirmed yesterday after we received more opinions from various lawyers all supporting our action.
“We’ve received opinions from several QCs on the matter.
“Hearing what the lawyers have had to say, we have taken the decision to proceed with an appeal to the Privy Council.
“We really wanted to see if there was a chance of success with the Privy Council and the lawyers have come back favourably.”
Mr Gosling was speaking after the Court of Appeal last month upheld a ruling in November by the Supreme Court that the Government could go ahead with the abolition of local democracy in Hamilton and St George.
Ratepayers would lose the right to elect a city mayor and counsellors under the government proposals.
The Government would instead appoint mayors and half the councillors.
The rest of the councillors would be picked by the relevant minister on the recommendation of a selection committee.
Lawyers for the City of Hamilton argued in the Supreme Court that the change was unconstitutional.
They said the change would give the Government “overwhelming” control of the municipalities and their properties, which would amount to an unconstitutional deprivation of property.
Mr Gosling said that the Privy Council case was not a foregone conclusion, despite the promising legal opinions.
He added: “Nobody is saying it’s a slam dunk. If it was a slam dunk I think we would have won this back in the Supreme Court.
“There are some very, very complex issues to be discussed, a number of which rely in part on the Bermuda Constitution.”
Mr Gosling explained: “Part of the problem is both sides are reliant on using cases which have set precedent in the courts — both at the Supreme Court and appeals court level — which conflict with one another.”
The latest legal twist will throw a spanner in the works and delay the Government’s plans to dismantle the local authorities.
Legislation to enact the changes was passed in the House of Assembly in 2019, but rejected in the Senate.
The Government has since mothballed its plans while the case worked its way through the courts.
Mr Gosling said it could be months before the Privy Council heard the case — and that the Government should not attempt to get legislation passed before it had handed down its ruling.
He added: “They’re going to have to wait until the Privy Council has made its decision.
“If it was deemed by the courts to be unconstitutional, then they would have just wasted Parliament’s time in terms of presenting the bill only for it to fall at the Privy Council.”
Mr Gosling admitted that taxpayers would have to foot the bill for court proceedings.
But he added that it was essential to explore every legal avenue to protect the principle of local democracy.
He said: “The legislation which has been created to establish the Corporation of Hamilton — which is done through the parliamentary process — has, up until this date, given a democratic process in which the mayor and the counsellors are put into office.
“It might not be a perfect democracy, but it is an opportunity by which the ratepayers of the city can make that choice.”
Mr Gosling added: “The cost of the assets of the city is around $58 million. The actual value of the property is considerably more than that. It is an extremely valuable asset.
“We feel that under the planned changes, the minister — with his appointed mayor and counsellors — would be able to divvy up and declare whatever objectives they have as being municipal objectives.
“It is very clear with the Act that produced Hamilton in the beginning that the Corporation of Hamilton — its aims and objectives — are for the betterment and investment within Hamilton itself.”
David Burch, the Minister for Public Works, which has responsibility for the municipalities, did not respond to a request for comment.