The Political Contamination and Commercialization of Local Government
Local Government was introduced to Dominica as part of a system of political decentralization by the British to administer the island. These comprise of three municipal (urban) councils, the Roseau City, the Portsmouth Town and the Canefield Urban councils which were established over one hundred years ago. The Carib (Kalinago) and 37 village councils have been strong and effective functioning institutions in their more than 50 years of existence.
These Local Government bodies which function under Chapter 190 of the 1961 Revised Laws of Dominica are popularly elected bodies 'empowered by law' to regulate and administer affairs in their respective areas. It is a system of institutionalized political decentralization which fosters local autonomy, popular bi-partisan and inclusive participation in the life and development of demarcated areas. The entities were funded by government grants for requested projects and from local house and land taxes.
The development of village councils goes back to the 1930's and to the events in the village of Marigot. In 1933, ten villagers including former Minister of Government, the late W.S. Stevens, a school principal at the time, organized in order for them to improve the conditions of the village. In 1963 there were ten village councils, 20 in 1968; 30 in 1975 and 37 in 2002.
The councils have been the most "grass-roots" and by far the most bi-partisan and effective arm of government within Dominica's 'democratic' system. But that was before Skerrit became PM. He has since abolished the Ministry of Community Development which was responsible for Local Government and replaced it with the Ministry for Constituency Empowerment. Observers allege that this new portfolio is nothing more than a conduit through which funds and resources are passed to the councils to do Skerrit's political work.
Sir Clarence Seignoret, then President of Dominica, in his June 1991 Presidential Address at the House of Assembly stated: "The functions and objectives of local government are to develop local institutions and leadership potential at the community level capable of managing the development of their areas. These objectives are central to any true democracy and can be achieved through an effective local government system".
Today these entitles have fallen prey to big money and are viewed as political footballs embroiled in a bigger game they don't understand. Mr. Skerrit presents himself at the village council inaugurations and acts like Santa Claus carrying envelopes with large cheques with promises of more later. The monetary reward each council gets depends on whether they are 'naughty or nice'- on their level of loyalty and the amount of 'pirating' it does for Skerrit.
At the St. Joseph Village Council's 21st inaugural meeting in March, Skerrit said that $15,000 will be distributed to the St. Joseph Farmers Group to purchase fertilizer to aid in farming activities, while a second amount of $278,000 will be given to the council to build proper washroom facilities within the community. He will also make available a further amount of $113,000 for the construction of a foot bridge. A few weeks earlier during a Labour Party public meeting in that same village which was broadcast live on radio, he instructed his supporters to call the UWP leaders traitors wherever and whenever they are seen.
Later in March, with rumours of the pending resignation of the popular UWP Roseau South MP due to legal issues, Skerrit raced to that constituency to attend the Giraudel/Eggleston Village Council meeting. He gave a cheque of $80,000 and promised that he will engage the energy company DOMLEC in discussions to procure eight street lights for these communities.
After announcing the June 7th date of the bi-election in the Soufriere constituency in April, 'uncle' Skerrit once again pulled out a cheque worth $597,000 out of his back pocket and presented it to the Soufriere/ Scotts Head/ Gallion Village Council for community projects.
Skerrit also hosted a party on the same day in Soufriere where he met with almost 100 people. Pictures of the cheque presentation and the 'sewo' (honey) campaign event quickly appeared on 'Facebook'.
Did any of these councils formally requested in writing with specific details the need for project funds as required by law? On what basis did the PM determine the rational and timing of the awards? Were proper procurement protocols followed and adhered to or are these just exercises in political expediency?
How and what formula, if any, was used to determine the amount of the grant award? These are vexing questions that lead to more questions than answers. Why is Skerrit planning to repeal and replace the Public Procurement and Contract Administration Act No.11 of 2012?
Many people believe that these unprofessional behavior is just Skerrit ('in-your face') questionable activity because he thinks can get away with it. He always concludes his 'Santa Claus' gift trips to the councils' events with a juvenile-like 'tongue lashing' of Mr. Linton, the UWP Opposition Leader.
This alleged blatant abuse of power by this PM means that public accountability of Government's funds opens to the door to massive fraud and corruption. If no written formal requests were made with progress reporting time lines with expense reports, then no one can be held responsible.
If that is the case, then Labour Party stalwarts in the councils may now not be accountable to the Government for their performance or lack thereof in the use of these funds. What probably matters is whether they are doing Skerrit's political work. This dangerous reality of the 'purchasing' and dismantling of the traditional model of Local Government is one with far-reaching consequences for Dominica.
For over 50 years, it has been successfully demonstrated in Dominica and in the sub- region that decentralization, enhancement of local government and participation of civil society in governance have been a major force of development, especially in rural areas. I can attest to this fact growing up in the rural eastern village of Laplaine.
The local government protocol has commanded the attention of major international agencies, academicians and policy-makers throughout the world. Today the heightened interest in these inter-related concepts and practices is driven by a growing imperative for developing countries around the globe to find ways to improve the quality of governance, deliver services in a more cost effective, transparent and legally responsible manner.