Portmore battle

Portmore battle

JLP wants court to stop collection of signatures for petition

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, February 26, 2015

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JAMAICA Labour Party (JLP) mayoral candidate for Portmore, Welton Shettlewood, and Councillor Keith Blake (Independence City Division) are today expected to apply for an injunction barring the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) from continuing to collect signatures from Portmore residents in order to go ahead with expanding the municipality's boundaries.

Shane Dalling, the attorney-at-law who is representing Shettlewood and Blake, argued that under the Municipalities Act of 2003, the seven per cent of the signatures of the electorate required to regularise or expand the boundaries only applies to the creation of a municipality, and not a municipality which is already in place.

"Before Portmore became a municipality, at least seven per cent of the residents were required to sign a petition, petitioning the relevant minister to declare, by virtue of an order, for that area now known as Portmore, to be a municipality. So that was done in 2003," Dalling told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.

He said the minister of local government cannot force the issue by way of a ministerial order, as the law only makes provisions for such an order in the case of a proposed municipality, not an already established one.

"Once the minister has declared the area to be a municipality, the minister cannot issue another order (to change the boundaries). The minister cannot arbitrarily issue an order, he is not above the law. He has to carry out the procedure that the law says," Dalling argued.

Controversy over the signature drive has grown in recent days, with Dalling saying the move is a smokescreen to shore up votes for the ruling People's National Party (PNP) in the upcoming local government elections.

According to Dalling, who is also the JLP caretaker for the Westchester Division in Portmore, electors who cannot now vote for mayor were not able to do so in the first place. "It's a farce. It gives the impression that there are some people who are members of the municipality who do not have a right to vote for the mayor. That's not true. Every single resident of Portmore, who were able to vote for mayor in 2003 when they were first given that right, are able to vote for mayor today. It is the areas that were never entitled or a part of the municipality that they are seeking to give a right to vote for the mayor. This is only related to the mayoral issue. Those areas are considered PNP strongholds. If they took those areas into Portmore, they will never again lose the mayoral race," Dalling asserted.

Dalling further said the Government is giving a wrong impression that the redrawing of the boundaries is a simple matter of regularising communities, which fell outside of the boundaries as a result of the addition of two constituencies to Portmore in 2010.

"That is not true. All the areas that were declared to be Portmore in 2003 are still in Portmore; the boundaries of the municipality, pursuant to the order issued, were never affected. What was affected is that because of the constituency boundary changes, some electoral divisions -- not the boundaries -- have now fallen outside of the municipal boundaries," he stated.

But member of parliament for East Central St Catherine Arnaldo Brown swatted aside the claim of the Government wanting to maintain its grip on the mayorship of Portmore. "This is not a matter where any political party is seeking an advantage over another political party," Brown said. "The assertion is partisan and ludicrous; if you have a division and part of that division falls outside of the municipal boundary [would you] say the entire division falls outside of the municipality? Is that fair to the people who were originally part of the municipal boundary? What is the solution to that? The response is to bring those areas into the ambit of the municipality."

At the same time, MP for South St Catherine Fitz Jackson, whose constituency is among those with some portions outside of the boundaries, was also adamant that the matter of voting for mayor was not the substantial issue.

"When we were promulgating the municipality of Portmore, the whole process brought to the fore the need to have defined boundaries for Portmore. It was just a community known as Portmore. So it became necessary to delineate some boundaries. At the time, we recognised that it might become necessary to change it at a later date, so much so, the procedure to do it was laid down then, which is the seven per cent of those registered in the constituencies that make up Portmore," Jackson explained.

He added that when Parliament had the boundaries redrawn in 2010 to add two constituencies to Portmore, legislators were well aware that two of the constituencies, including his, had divisions which spread well outside of the existing municipal boundary, in the direction of Spanish Town.

He said that the need to regularise the boundaries for all the communities in Portmore was "acknowledged to be done for 2010", but was never actioned.

"The Jamaica Labour Party Government at the time failed to do it, and the fact is that the People's National Party Government has failed to do it from 2012 up to now. So it's a late exercise. The objective is to get all the communities that are in the constituencies in Portmore, in the divisions that are in those constituencies," the MP stated.

Brown, too, noted that the original boundaries were "never conceived to be permanent". The idea of the boundaries being shifted was "contemplated" by the legislation, he said.

Dalling contended, however, that an "understanding" that the boundaries could be expanded in the future has no footing in law. "Those persons saying that it was an understanding, you have to look at the letter of the law, and the law doesn't provide for what they want," he remarked.

He argued that the only solution is to take the Municipalities Act back to Parliament and make provisions for expansion of the boundaries. He said it was either this, or revoke the order of 2003 which declared Portmore to be a municipality, and then conduct the petition, to take in the new areas, declaring them a part of the municipality.

Meanwhile, Jackson said he was not pleased with the information given to residents about the necessity of the petition. He said that following discussions with the affected MPs, the local government minister, and the director of elections, this is to be addressed.

Said Jackson: "I don't want to get into the business of putting blame; it wasn't done properly [so] let us just try [to] fix it. I have told the EOJ that I'm not pleased with the information they put out in the public announcements about the exercise (petition)... It said 'Go out and sign so that you can vote for the next mayor of Portmore'. That's not it. That's a part of it, but that's a consequential part."

The PNP's George Lee became the first elected mayor of Portmore in 2003. However, in 2007 he lost the mayoral race by some 776 votes to JLP candidate Keith Hinds, who polled 15,205 votes. Lee returned in 2012 and swept the elections with 15,040 votes, against Hinds' 8,316.

The boundary changes were effected in 2011.

In 2010, an islandwide review of constituency boundaries resulted in the creation of three new constituencies -- one in St James, and two in St Catherine. One of the St Catherine constituencies -- East Central -- impacted the alignment of the boundaries for the municipality of Portmore.

As a result, portions of south east, south central, and south St Catherine now make up the new East Central St Catherine, resulting in divisions such as Portmore Pines, and Greater Portmore North, falling outside of the municipal boundaries.

As set out in the Municipal Act, once a part of a division falls outside of the boundary, then the entire division is deemed to be outside of the municipality.

A consequence of this is that two Portmore councillors had to sit in the St Catherine Parish Council. Legislation was brought to the Parliament to temporarily address this situation and have the councillors sit in the municipal council, until the boundary situation is corrected.

Some of the affected areas include: Silverstone, Newlands, Morris Meadows, Clifton, Lakes Pen, and Quarry Hill. The EOJ is seeking to have the petition signed by 6,480 of 92,567 electors.

The EOJ yesterday confirmed that it has got more signatures since the 1,800 achieved last weekend, but that these would not be tabulated until the end of this week.

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