On Local Government

First Published: 2006-05-26

Presentation to Ministry of local Government & Consumer Affairs Town Meeting on the possible introduction of Local Government in New Providence at Workers House, May 8, 2006.

On local government

"What is this oozing behemoth, this fibrous tumour, this monster of power and expense hatched from the simple human desire for civic order? How did an allegedly free people spawn a vast, rampant cuttlefish of dominion with its tentacles in every orifice of the body politic?"

Yes, it sounds as if we’re talking about our Parliament, but that is the opening salvo in P. J. O’Rourke’s 1991 treatise titled Parliament of Whores – A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government. He goes on to discuss what the U.S. government spends and how much of American’s lives are ‘controlled’ by government laws and regulations.

We are not here to discuss that topic this evening as you know – although we could write a book about that here too. We are to discuss local government and its introduction here on New Providence.

In the interest of time there is no need for too much detail on the history of local government since the Assent by the Governor General in March of 1996 to An Act to make provision for local government in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas. If memory serves us correctly, the regulations were completed in October 1996 and the first councils were elected later that same year.

Local Council Concerns

The idea of local government is a noble one if done properly, but numerous reservations remain about the existing system. A quick call to a councillor on one of the Family Islands reveals that:

1. The Family Island Councils believe they have ‘no real authority’.
2. Local Boards are circumvented and islanders come directly to Nassau for various approvals.
3. Expenses relating to the work of the Council or Board is often absorbed by local people.
4. They do not have the authority to tax or retain revenue collected on behalf of the Central government.
5. There seems to be consensus that the local councils want control over the Ministry of Works departments so infrastructure repairs and development can be handled in a timely manner.

The Clarington Ontario Experience

On the other hand a call to a friend that was elected to two terms on the council of the Municipality of Clarington in Ontario Canada is quite different. While the Municipal Councils duties are strictly prescribed, they do have control over infrastructure like roads and sewers but also parks and recreation facilities. And to accomplish this there are Municipal taxes that the Federal or Provincial government are not able to tap into.

With regard to the Municipal Council being circumvented by going directly to the Provincial government for a hearing, it was pointed out that if a developer or citizen did that, it is not likely they would receive a full hearing and would be directed back to the Municipal Council to deal with the matter first.

Do you think we will ever get to that stage of maturity here?

It is also a function of the Municipal Council to provide development plans (including types of development desired etc) for their area and these are seldom ignored by higher governmental authorities.

Although the Nassau Institute supports development as a principle, we wonder if the Guana Cay debate would ever have happened if the locals could decide.

For more information on details about Municipal Councils in Ontario, Canada and how they function, please log onto the Association of Municipalities of Ontario at Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

The Road Ahead

Local government for New Providence is a tantalising idea, however, we sincerely doubt that the Central government will relinquish power to the mere mortals among our constituencies. History shows us that our politicians think they still need to baby sit us, but we live in a democracy so maybe that is our own fault. But that is another subject and it remains to be seen if we will be correct.

Unlike the framers of the Bahamas Independence Order of 1973, the framers of the New Providence Local Government Act (or whatever it is called) should be more involved in the process to ensure that property rights and personal freedom are protected and as little bureaucracy as possible is incorporated into the system.

We maintain the principle of subsidiarity must be adhered to in this regard.

As noted by David A. Bosnich in the Acton Institutes Religion and Liberty magazine on Acton’s web site…the principle of subsidiarity. This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.

Also, each municipality, borough or constituency, (however the various councils will be named) must take responsibility for themselves and must not be dependent on the central government as the Family Island Councils presently are.

1. They must have real authority.
2. They must not be circumvented for various approvals because someone knows someone.
3. They must not have to use personal funds to carry out the function of the office.
4. They must have the authority to tax or retain revenue collected on behalf of the Central government.
5. They must have control over the Ministry of Works departments so infrastructure repairs and development can be handled in a timely manner. Or better still contract the services out to private industry.
6. They must incorporate clear guidelines for the protection of private property and personal freedom. A review of Constitutional scholar Bernard H. Siegan’s book, Drafting A Constitution For A Nation Republic Emerging Into Freedom would be useful here.

The Virtues of Decentralized Local Government

Sam Staley wrote a Policy Analysis for the Cato Institute in January 1992 titled The Virtues of Decentralized Local Government where he noted:

The solution is more likely to be found in a competitive, decentralized governmental system. Instead of undermining the diverse interests that make up metropolitan America, urban policy should free political markets to ensure that the desires of local residents are fully expressed in the policymaking process and the private sector is given the fullest possible latitude to provide needed goods and services. Public services are often provided more effectively and efficiently through privatization, which allows private markets to develop innovative new services and products that reflect the changing needs and wants of local consumers. That goal can be reached only by avoiding a consolidated, monopoly regional government system that depends on one organization to provide all public goods. A decentralized, fragmented political system that is competitive and responsive can achieve that goal.

In this process we must not forget that private property is fundamental to all other endeavours. Neither subsidiarity or local government will meet the demands of a globalizing world – unless property rights are secure – and perceived to be secure not only by Bahamians but also by the rest of the world.

In closing his book, The Parliament of Whores, P.J. O’Rourke rightfully stated "The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us". But, we hasten to add that we can do it right with the effort and true government transparency.

At the Nassau Institute our Vision is to see The Bahamas become the first small, developed, sovereign country in the region, recognized as a model for the world.

We hope we can prove Mr. O’Rourke wrong.

It is not often we agree with government, but we believe that independent local government as we have described in this very brief paper, is the way to go.

How about you?

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