The government on Monday passed a crucial second reading of a bill to establish advisory district councils with eight votes to five.
Under the Advisory District Councils Bill (2010), Cabinet will appoint council members and the Leader of the Opposition can recommend at least two members to the council.
Opposition members described the bill as undemocratic and called for the government to redraft it, but the bill passed as drafted.
Premier McKeeva Bush said the Advisory District Councils would cause a “shake up in the organs of the state” and “may set in train a range of evolutionary changes, which may alter the mutual understanding between the governed and those governing of what grants legitimacy to sovereign power”.
He said the advisory district councils would be effective tools to enable more public participation in the creation of policy and of improving transparency.
Answering concerns raised by the Constitutional Commission last year, Mr. Bush said the advisory district councils could not charge expenditure to government revenue, but that members would be paid an allowance. Meetings of the councils will be held in public, except in certain circumstances when the chairman of a council can choose to hold a meeting in camera, or in private, Mr. Bush said.
Cabinet will appoint the council members, each of which will consist of a chairman, vice chairman, secretary, treasurer, and up to six other members, two of whom will be recommended by the Opposition.
Opposition members said the bill needlessly politicised district councils.
The bill states that “Where an electoral district does not have a member who belongs to the party whose leader has been appointed Premier… the party is entitled to nominate up to three members to the council.” This would also apply if single-member constituencies are introduced or new electoral districts added.
The bill also states that in a district with elected members of the Legislative Assembly from two or more political parties, each party can make recommendations for the appointments.
Opposition member Alden McLaughlin said: “We don’t need to complicate this issue by the introduction of the term ‘political parties’ into the legislation.”
He said the councils would be so heavily weighted in favour of the government that “essentially, the views and representations and concerns of the elected members who are not members of the government are almost meaningless”.
The councils are being set up as a result of Section 119 of the Constitution, which falls under a section titled Institutions Supporting Democracy, which makes provision for the establishment of advisory councils in each electoral district. Section 119 states: “Subject to this Constitution, a law enacted by the legislature shall provide for the establishment, functions and jurisdiction of councils for each electoral district to operate as advisory bodies to the elected members of the Legislative Assembly.”
The constitution provides no other detail on the composition or method of establishing those councils.
Mr. McLaughlin said that the bill, which he described as “autocratic legislation”, sought to create “another government-controlled entity”.
He said the legislation meant councils would merely tell Government what it wanted to hear. “That could never be an improvement on democracy,” he said.
A district council already exists in Mr. Miller’s constituency, but he told legislators that the North Side district council differed from that being proposed in the legislation. “This bill proposes to create district councils that are unilaterally selected and appointed, controlled by the Governor in Cabinet, a body often alien to the districts in which these councils are to be established,” he said, adding that he could not support the bill in the form it was presented to the house.
Mr. Miller called for the election of district council members, rather than their appointment by government.
The independent member said that under the proposed bill, he would have no opportunity to recommend members of a district council because he was not a member of a political party.
The passing of the new law would lead to “large scale political cronyism” and the placement by government of failed and future candidates of the governing party on the advisory district boards, Mr. Miller suggested, describing such a situation as “a recipe for disaster because of the inherent political conflicts such an appointment system would foster within close-knit communities in this Island”.
He also expressed concerns about the provision enabling the chairman of a district council to decide to hold meetings in private. He proposed amending that clause to state that, if meetings are to be held in camera, that decision should be made by the council rather than the chairman alone.
East End representative Mr. McLean also spoke in opposition of the bill during the debate, saying that since he was only elected member of his district, the government would place members on the district council who opposed him and who would support the establishment of a large seaport in East End, which he and many of his constituents opposes.
“You think that government is going to pick someone in East End that supports me?” No, let’s get real,” he said, adding that the government would pick people who support the seaport.
Mr. McLean also called for the election of district councils.
According to the bill, the functions of the council include advising members of the Legislative Assembly on policies and to encourage formal and informal exchange of information between district residents and the elected representatives.
In his closing comments on the debate, prior to the vote, Mr. Bush defended the bill, saying it was acceptable for Cabinet to appoint district councils.
He said independent members, like Mr. Miller, would have a say in recommending council members because they would be considered political parties with one member.
“If the council is given a chance to work as is proposed, it will work,” Mr. Bush said.
Four PPM members and Mr. Miller voted against the bill. The PPM’s Moses Kirkconnell and the UDP’s Dwayne Seymour were absent. The bill will now go to committee stage before getting a third and final reading.
Six bills on Monday’s order paper at the Legislative Assembly, included the Water Production and Supply Bill, Wastewater Collection and Treatment Bill, Water Authority (Amendment) Bill, Health Practice (Amendment) Bill, Prison (Amendments) Bill and Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill.