Newly appointed City of Freeport Island Administrator, Don Cornish, is passionate about the depth and importance of Local Government and during a recent interview with this daily, he spoke about the Local Government Act and how it was established in The Bahamas.
“I don’t think that many persons understand the dynamics of this job and I think, contextually, it would help for people to see why the Family Island Administration Act was put into force.
“If you look back at the Colonial structure, back to when the Westminster System was applied to The Bahamas, we are not a contiguous land mass, we are an archipelago and so everyone wants the same service everywhere in The Bahamas.”
He shared that persons residing in areas such as Black Point, Exuma; Matthew Town, Inagua and other small settlements throughout the archipelago want and deserve the same government services as those in Marsh Harbour, Abaco or in Eight Mile Rock.
“The danger with that is, there was only one Prime Minister’s Office, at the time, and one Cabinet Office. All of these services are required … people want schools, to be able to pay their taxes, receive benefits from the government, whether is it from Social Services, the Police, Customs or Immigration. In order to administer these services and collect the Government’s Revenue, we had to have a structure of management, whether through some city management or district structure where everything emanated from a central place, outward. The person being the head of the department would be responsible for accounting to the government at the end of the day.
“The government had a system where they created districts throughout the country and appointed Commissioners, at the time, prior to 1996 when Local Government was implemented. That system of Local Government obtained for the entire period, close to 100 years, up until 1996. Debate started in about 1994, about a new system of Local Government. That was not just the Commissioner, because the Commissioners invariably were men. They did not allow females until the 1990s, but the whole idea was that these men, who were senior government officials, former principals and superintendents of schools, principally, persons who had some administrative capabilities, were trained and cross-trained to be Lay Magistrates.
“This meant that they could sit on the bench. By virtue of our office we are Lay Magistrates, Notary Publics, Justices of the Peace … because you have those legal duties that you have to execute and you have to address certain cases, up to a certain number of penalties,” Cornish explained.
He noted that Commissioners also held the responsibility of warehouse keeper for the districts, which meant that they were responsible for collecting the Government’s Revenue through Customs and other departments, and also had the responsibility of representing the Director of Immigration or the Minister, as the case may be, and other senior government officials.
“You are all of those things in the district, because the government is minded to ensure that the services it provides are channeled through an individual who has training. We get cross-training in the various agencies from a period of anywhere, from six months or close to a year.
“We also receive Treasury training, because you are the Government’s Chief Accountant, so you maintain what is called a cash book. The government’s cash book basically represents all of the Government’s Revenue and Expenditure for the district, on all of its accounts. All of the accounts are managed through the Commissioner. You are the person who gets audited; the Auditor General speaks to you about the government’s fiscal position within the district,” explained the Island Administrator.
He said that prior to 1996, there was only that one individual (Commissioner) and in 1994, just before that the government appointed what was called a Local Board of Works, persons from the community who could serve with the Commissioner, to assist with Statutory Boards, Town Planning, the Licensing Board, and others. “They would be mature persons within the community, who were appointed, through the Cabinet and were invited to participate. Annually, they would sit at scheduled meetings with the Commissioner to hear and to consider applications for various things.
“The ultimate authority was vested in the Commissioner. He really had the statutory authority, not them; but it was to have them buy in as stakeholders.
“The government went a step further in 1996 after the period of discussion between 1992 and 1996, where they talked about creating a template for Local Government that was sufficient to engage the community and involve them in a more significant way. That involved trying to find a system, either in Canada, the Caribbean or elsewhere in the British Commonwealth, that fit The Bahamas’ needs. Most of what we have is a model of some of that, mostly from the Canadian system and some from the Caribbean, where we had a Local Government Authority.
“Under that Authority, there was Schedule Two and Schedule Three Districts. The Government had to look at how you could configure the Districts, where you already had District Commissioners. The question was, how do you share this power, that not only the Commissioner has, but also some Members of Parliament responsibilities and some Agency responsibilities whether a Ministry or Department, where they had a particular amount of authority,” he revealed.
In a Schedule Two District, Cornish explained that Townships, were created, where persons were elected directly from their town area. Once elected there were a specific number, per town, based on the population.
“Once townships were elected, they would select from one another, their leadership, the seven or nine members of the Council (every council varies), within Schedule Two.”
He shared that an example of such is West Grand Bahama, which has four townships (Pinder’s Point/Lewis Yard, Eight Mile Rock East, Eight Mile Rock West and West End).
“The Local Government Authority, which is vested in law, has the power under the Local Government Act 1996, to carry out a number of functions –principally maintenance, taking care of city management type activities, collection of refuse, maintenance of refuse sites, upkeep of parks, playgrounds and public buildings, etcetera.
“All of those duties are vested in them, and they are actually responsible for ensuring these facilities exist and are also maintained at a high level. The Act speaks to them doing this with any competent authority; that is a term used throughout the Local Government Act, because it is intended that they are cooperative, in the way that they do their business. They should also ensure that they work along with agencies responsible for the distribution of electricity, the provision of water, or the delivery of mail.
“They cooperatively work with private and public sectors entities, in order to achieve these things. These elected officials are basically guided by the Administrator; the devolution of power that took place, took away the Commissioner’s responsibilities, shared it with this group and took additional responsibilities from Members of Parliament, or the Cabinet level, or agencies and also shared with this group of elected officials, in the Schedule Two format,” explained the Island Administrator.
In the Schedule Three, where the government could not create Townships, because population did not permit, or geographically it was better to keep them all together, (for example, on Grand Cay or Moore’s Island where they have one group together) the government was minded to created what is called a Third Schedule District. The District Council was formed, where a person would be elected directly to the District Council and that person has all statutory responsibilities, the City of Freeport is an example of that.
“Even though a person is elected in the City of Freeport, from your area, in terms of population, you only have one District Council, there are no Townships, but, your area is zoned so that you can be elected, from your area. It is a bit more peculiar than the others.
“The population based on the City of Freeport, warrants that you have very specific zoned elections, based on the Constituency model more so than anything else. The difference in the City of Freeport though is that the Port Authority exists. The Port Authority has a lot of the statutory functions that Local Government would ordinarily have; that is the distinction. All of the others are principally in the hands of the Government; because the Government gave the Port Authority some benefits, which have taken away a lot of the opportunities that the Local Government authority would have.
“What the Port Authority agreed to do is, in turn to release all of its parks and playgrounds, to the controller of Local Government yearly, on a lease basis. All of the parks then come under the Authority of the Council. They have the ability to function as typical District Council would on other islands, on that basis,” informed Cornish.
Cornish was named new Island Administrator for the City of Freeport on June 27.