As Faris Al-Rawi embarks on his first full week as Local Government Minister, his top priority will be a reform process that has been on and off for the better part of a quarter-century.
Adding to the weight of his new ministerial assignment will be the challenge of delivering that long-promised reform in time for elections which are due later this year. However, the former attorney general has already expressed his excitement at taking up the portfolio, so he should already be hitting the ground running.
A modern, efficient, and properly resourced local government system has been an elusive goal for at least two PNM administrations.
Reformation and modernization were on the agenda of the Patrick Manning administration as far back as 2002 but there was little progress, even though at one stage elections were postponed, and the terms of local government bodies extended to facilitate the process.
The last time there was any meaningful reform was following the then National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government’s sweep of local government elections in 1987. That exercise resulted in The Municipal Corporations Act No 21 of 1990, proclaimed in 1991, which replaced the old county council system with 14 municipal corporations–two city corporations, three borough corporations and nine regional corporations.
During the Manning administration’s attempt at reform, extensive consultations were held in all the municipalities and several policy documents were developed. Among them were a Green Paper (2004); a Draft White Paper (2006); a Green Paper on Roles and Responsibilities (2008); and a Draft White Paper (2009).
However, the proposed Local Government Bill, 2010, did not go far.
The People’s Partnership administration of 2010-2015 delved briefly into local government reform but never got to the stage of implementation.
The PNM under the leadership of Dr Keith Rowley made the issue one of the key manifesto promises in its 2015 election campaign and after winning office installed the late Franklin Khan as local government minister to spearhead the reform process.
Later, Kazim Hosein, a former mayor, took over the ministerial portfolio and the reform process.
However, more than six years after the current political administration signalled that it was among their priority issues, there is no word on how much progress–if any–has been made.
In the meantime, T&T is still saddled with a local government system that cannot deliver goods and services to the public in an efficient, timely and cost-effective manner. Major impediments include inadequate funding, an inefficient administrative structure that is bogged down in bureaucracy, and low productivity.
Ironically, if Mr Al-Rawi succeeds in delivering the long-awaited reform, he will also have the distinction of being the last Local Government Minister. That is because regional corporations will become autonomous bodies like the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) and there will be no need for ministerial control. Instead, municipal corporations will report directly to the Ministry of Finance.
Although it is regarded as the lowest tier of public administration, the importance of local government should not be underestimated. It is government at the grassroots level, delivering services that are critical for national development.
Best of luck to Mr Al-Rawi as he takes on this new assignment.