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Portmore residents still locked out of municipality

BY BALFORD HENRY Senior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, October 21, 2012    

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PORTMORE Mayor George Lee says the Portmore Municipal Council (PMC) will not abandon two divisions within the community which have been without representation on the council since the March 2012 Local Government Elections.

"It is an untenable and unfortunate situation, but we will not abandon them," Lee told the Jamaica Observer on Friday.

Lee said that the municipal council has been assisting the residents of the two divisions with some drain cleaning. He also confirmed that the divisions get some support from the St Catherine Parish Council. However, he admitted that this is far from enough and that his administration will have to continue doing whatever it can to assist.

"We do get complaints from the residents that they are not getting the kind of support that they expect, but although we do not have the resources and we are not able to pay full attention to their needs, we do assist with critical needs. It is really an unfortunate situation and I really hope it is rectified soon," Lee added.

The matter was raised recently in the House of Representatives by Desmond McKenzie, Opposition spokesman on urban renewal, urban development and local government, in questions asked of minister of local government and community development Noel Arscott.

McKenzie wanted to know why the issue has not been rectified and why the councillors for the two divisions have still not been sworn in.

Arscott repeated his argument from April, when the issue was raised publicly, that his ministry was taking steps to have the situation regularised.

He said that his ministry has started preparatory steps to execute a Ministerial Order, having received a draft Municipalities (Portmore) Order 2012. He said that he is also having discussions with the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) and the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) and that, based on those discussions, the matter will be placed before the Cabinet for consideration.

Thousands of residents of Portmore who live in the Portmore Pines and the heavily populated Greater Portmore North divisions have been deprived of representation within the municipal council since the March 26 Local Government Elections, because constituency boundary changes, directed by the ECJ, in order to increase the seats in the House of Representatives from 60 to 63 prior to last December's general election, have left them outside the municipal boundaries.

The two elected councillors — Claude Hamilton of Portmore Pines and Michael Edwards of Greater Portmore North — are ineligible to be sworn in as members of the Portmore Municipal Council because of the development, although they have been sworn in as members of the much wider St Catherine Parish Council.

The result is that while the PMC is designated to have 12 divisions, it only has 10; and while the two affected divisions get some help from the St Catherine Parish Council, unlike the other Portmore divisions, they are unable to access some $2 million in annual allocations to those within the municipality, as well as other municipal programmes.

Because of boundary changes, Greater Portmore North now has 23 polling divisions (PDs) within the municipality and seven outside, while Portmore Pines has 19 PDs inside and nine outside. However, when the elections were held in March, voters were each given two ballots — one to elect a councillor and the other to elect the mayor of the municipality, which has also raised questions as to whether the mayor is duly elected, since some of the ballots may have been cast by persons outside of the municipality.

Residents have criticised the EOJ and the ECJ, claiming that they should have known that the constituency and divisional boundary changes would require changes to the boundaries of the municipality, and redraw them with new boundaries, including the former Bernard Lodge Division, and officially promulgate those changes.

However, Director of Elections Orrette Fisher has dismissed some of these issues as erroneous.

According to Fisher, the ECJ has carried out its full obligation with respect to the boundaries of the constituencies and electoral divisions, allowing the December election to be held on the basis of the new boundaries. However, he said that the ECJ was not responsible for gazetting the new boundaries for the Portmore Municipality.

"The ECJ in 2010, on completion of the boundaries report to Parliament, gazetted the boundaries of the new and redefined constituencies in St Catherine, St Andrew, St Ann, and St James. The commission also gazetted the boundaries of the new and redefined electoral division boundaries in St Catherine, where one new division was added," Fisher said in his response.

He stated that the redefinition of the municipal boundaries is outside the remit of the ECJ, and that the ECJ had made specific recommendations for the municipal boundaries to be comprised wholly of three constituencies — St Catherine South, St Catherine South East and St Catherine East Central — and 12 electoral divisions.

However, he noted that the previous Government had deferred gazetting the new municipal boundaries, as it looked at the possibility of making Portmore Jamaica's 15th parish. The previous Government had appointed a committee to examine that possibility. However, the December general election and March local government elections intervened and a new Administration took office before the committee could finalise its deliberations and submit a report.

But Fisher said that after the new Government took office in January, the ECJ apprised Arscott and the St Catherine Parish Council of the urgency of gazetting the new boundaries ahead of the local government elections. The new Administration proceeded to have the boundaries gazetted, but when the Bill was sent to the chief parliamentary counsel for drafting, it was noted that no consultation was held with the residents of the municipality.

A petition was subsequently signed by seven per cent of the electors residing in the proposed areas to be added to municipality. However, legal advice from the Attorney General's Department was that the petition had to be signed by at least seven per cent of the residents on the list of the entire municipality. But time did not allow for the completion of a second petition and for a Bill to be signed and gazetted before the Local Government Elections in March.

As a result, Fisher said that the elections proceeded on the existing boundaries of the municipality, and all the electors who previously voted for the mayor in previous elections were allowed to do so. However, because Portmore Pines and Greater Portmore North do not fall entirely within the existing boundaries of the municipality, as required by law, their councillors are not eligible to sit on the PMC, but can sit on the St Catherine Parish Council.

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