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Serving Manchester... A peek at Mandeville's Mayor, Brenda Ramsay

BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-At-Large, South Central Bureau myersg@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 28, 2010    

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MANDEVILLE, Manchester -- Brenda Ramsay got bitten by the political bug largely because of her father, Hambert James, who was a parish councillor in Clarendon in the 1960s.

"He was the first PNP (People's National Party) councillor to win in the Kellits Division. I liked what he was doing and at that tender age went to group meetings and listened to all the political education messages and got interested," recalls Ramsay.

Now decades later, as the first female mayor of Mandeville and chairman of the Manchester Parish Council, she continues to enjoy the challenge of politics, though she admits the job is stressful at times.

"I enjoy doing things that can benefit other people. When you are able to get something done and make a difference there is great satisfaction...," Ramsay explains.

And "contrary to what many may think, people are not always ungrateful. Many, many do say thanks," she says.

But all good things must come to an end. Ramsay, who is now in her third term as PNP councillor for the Bellefield Division, says she is eyeing retirement. She says the three-year term that she expects to follow local government elections, constitutionally due this year, will "definitely" be her last.

Her decision stems from what she says is her strong belief in "renewal" on the political stage.

"I believe in term limits," she explains. "I believe people must not tell you when to go, you should know, you should not continue just because you feel that you will continue to win," she says.

Born in Kellits, NE Clarendon, Ramsay also spent much of her early life with her paternal grandmother in Treasure Beach, SW St Elizabeth.

His political life apart, her father was a policeman and her mother, Vera James (nee McKenzie), was a businesswoman.

Ramsay attended the Kellits Primary School and Sandy Bank Primary School in Treasure Beach, before moving on to the St Hilda's High School in Brown's Town, St Ann. On leaving school, she worked "for a very short time" in the advertising department of the Gleaner Company, before moving on to the bauxite/alumina company. Alcan in 1969 where she would spend a satisfying 25 years in the mineral resource and legal departments.

Ramsay entered representational politics largely at the urging of her late husband Hervine Ramsay, who was himself a caretaker/councillor before convincing his wife that she was -- if anything -- better suited to the political hustings.

She got her feet wet against the legendary former mayor of Mandeville, Cecil Charlton, in the Mandeville Division and actually thought she had won, but the preliminary result was overturned on recount.

She moved on to the Bellefield Division in the 1990s and has been a fixture there ever since.

In the local government elections of late 2007, the PNP surprised many by edging out the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in Manchester. After 18 years in opposition, the JLP had only just won the parliamentary elections and dominated the local authority poll that followed.

Ramsay found herself making history by gaining the confidence of her colleagues to become the only female mayor among the local authorities, and the first for Manchester.

She notes with great pride that late last year her council was recognised by Government for "best overall performance in advanced implementation of core local government reform initiatives".

Her council's success notwithstanding, Ramsay is frustrated by the slow progress of local government reform which aims, among other things, at providing greater autonomy for local authorities. She seems to suggest that there is an absence of political will to strengthen local government.

"There is not that appreciation of the role of councils," says Ramsay. "Even if we do not have responsibility (for a particular aspect), we should be brought into the picture, but there is that distance between central and local government which is not ideal and which does not make for good planning and implementation," she says.

She cites current legal disputes with cellular service provider Claro and the long delays in getting the matters settled in the courts as examples of the kinds of hurdles faced by local authorities.

"We have some cell sites which we believe have been put up illegally and we have been forced to pursue the matter through the courts. We are nowhere near after a year in getting any sort of settlement; if we had our own municipal court I think that this matter would have been settled long ago...," she says.

Ramsay also has serious difficulties with the way benefits are distributed. She points to what she believes is clear evidence of political victimisation by the JLP Government against the PNP-led Manchester Parish Council.

"There is no doubt in my mind that there is some form of victimisation. You will find that when requests are made in terms of street lights, for example, other councils receive but we in Manchester have not benefited. You ask for funds for water and some divisions will be singled out ...," she says.

She does not deny that her own party would also have been guilty of such victimisation on occasions when it held sway in central Government. "The extent to which it really happens varies, sometimes it gets vulgar," she says. Either way, she insists, it's wrong.

She believes that all could learn from a "system of equity" practised in the Manchester Parish Council.

"For those funds which come in to the council... we have a structured approach to how it is spent. There is a schedule for the financial year as to which council will get and when... you know you are going to get a certain amount of money based on the pattern of the funds coming in, but no councillor gets more than the other. So you can plan with certainty and you know that your division will benefit and this does not go along political lines," she says.

Even as she plots her political exit, Ramsay dreams of a Mandeville and Manchester that will be well ordered and peaceful. And which will remain relatively prosperous even in the aftermath of the bauxite/alumina industry, which has been the cornerstone of the parish's economy for decades. The cessation of production at Alpart in South East St Elizabeth and Kirkvine in Manchester apart, analysts say bauxite reserves are unlikely to last much beyond the next 20 years.

The Manchester Parish Council played an important role in the successful development of the parish's Development Plan, which is now awaiting parliamentary orders.

Close to her heart is Brooks Park, the large, mostly undeveloped area at the centre of Mandeville that is routinely seen as crucial for sports and recreation in this south-central town. "Brooks Park should be brought up to the stage where, not only Manchesterians but people from all over will come for art, theatre -- a family centre where kids can go and play," she says.

Ramsay believes that despite resource constraints, her council has been successful in a drive to restore order to the Mandeville market and shopping arcade, sections of which had descended to a den for criminals just over a year ago.

Now the council is earning praise from vendors who say recent upgrading work has brought a sense of calm and restored customer confidence.

"We are bringing back some order to the market and arcade," says a proud Ramsay. "We have done a lot of upgrading work, work is still ongoing because we don't have all the money, but we are making progress," she says.

It is all part of what she says is the need to restore her parish and capital town "to a state where people feel that this is the Manchester, this is the Mandeville we are used to", the Mayor adds.

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