The administration is considering the relaunch of local government after 50 years with the proposed establishment of “People’s Assemblies”. Presently, a commission chaired by attorney-at-law and Member of Parliament for Christ Church South Ralph Thorne is hosting a series of meetings around the island to gauge public opinion.
The People’s Assemblies are to be community-based and each of the 20 assemblies would have 30 members. Among their functions will be oversight over government agencies, ensuring community well-being, environmental improvements and protection, education, community development, and sports, issuing vendor licences, holding community forums, and developing business initiatives such as community cooperatives.
The current model breaks down the 20 assemblies based on population density in the various parishes, although several commentators believe it would be easier to divide it along constituency lines since the Electoral and Boundaries Commission is most likely the agency that will oversee elections associated with the assemblies.
The proposed structure calls for one assembly each in St. Lucy, St. Andrew, St. Joseph, St. John and St. Thomas, while St. George, St. James, St. Philip and St. Peter would each have two, Christ Church three, and St. Michael four.
In terms of the people who will serve on it, interested candidates are urged to submit a resume and should have a history of community work, or show a passion for doing so. It is possible that non-nationals who have lived on the island for many years and have worked diligently in their communities may be allowed to participate once they are citizens of the country.
Elections will be held to select the best candidates to lead the organisations, along with other members.
In all, the assembly will consist of ten people from the private sector, ten from the public sector, and the remaining ten are expected to represent the youth, specifically university and other tertiary level students along with senior children in secondary schools.
Ambassador to CARICOM David Comissiong said the Member of Parliament is likely to be involved in some aspects of the People’s Assemblies.
He said: “The way the paper is structured now, we are seeking to engage the presence of the MP in terms of at least three functions.
“Namely, the community well-being team will engage and liaise with the MP/MPs, the community forum where the assembly will bring together people to discuss national issues, and development planning, where the council will examine community needs for jobs, playing fields and so on.
“We have not gone the route of inserting MP directly into the People’s Assembly because we want it to be a people’s instrument with its own independence and autonomy and is non-partisan, but by the very nature of some functions the MP has to be engaged.”
We commend the Government for taking its case to the people, because while the last administration introduced Constituency Councils, whose mission was described in similar terms – that is, getting things done within the constituencies more quickly than going through central government – it was never clearly explained how they worked and they became best known for staging a football tournament.
While the minister responsible stated that the tournament did help the communities in terms of creating jobs for food vendors, sound system operators and other people who would have provided services during the games, we are left to wonder what else they accomplished.
The People’s Assemblies do raise many questions which we hope the public will put to the Thorne Commission. In total, they will add 600 more people to the local decision-making process, when we already complain about excessive bureaucracy.
Will the full group of 600 delegates come together at least once a year, and how often are the individual assemblies expected to meet? Will the meetings be open to the people in the community or held behind closed doors? Will a budget be allocated to them, and as was the case at this year’s Estimates, will the heads be called to Parliament to explain how their money was spent?
Other matters that have not yet been clarified include how often elections will be held for the head and other elected members, how often other members will be rotated, and whether members will be compensated, as one commentator stated that people lost interest in the now-defunct Constituency Councils because they were not paid for their services.
Commentators have also asked for a central office and “secretariat” in each catchment area where they can hold their meetings, and where people can come in to air their grievances or share their concerns.
While one Commission member stated that many community organisations such as Neighbourhood Watches meet through social media fora these days, certain pressing issues are better-discussed face to face.
There are many more town hall meetings scheduled, and with We Gatherin’ planned for next year, the Commission ought to consider hearing the views of any Barbadians living in the Diaspora who might be serving or have served on similar bodies in their adopted countries to get an idea of how they are structured, their effectiveness, and indeed if local government, whether in the form of a borough, city council or congress is necessary given our population size and other factors.
Many opinions of all the parties at the Thorne Commission’s meetings have been very enlightening based on personal experience. We expect this to continue and we hope that will be taken seriously and not discarded based on any perceived political or social affiliation of the speakers – unless the exercise is intended to lead to a set up that might ultimately defeat its own purpose.