One of the most important issues pushed by the Belize Development Trust volunteers over the years, has been the decentralization and streamling of government services, so that each community around the nation of Belize can get efficient and prompt service locally on the spot, in their own community.
The PUP government had tackled the suggestions from the Belize Development Trust Development Issues with their own twists on things. Legislation was passed for Towns and another ACT for Villages with laws and responsibilities.
How is this working out in practise?
Essentially, the effort by the PUP government to introduce local services and local government has been hodge podge. They meant well, but there is always a gap between the intention of legislation and the application in the real world. Progress of course, comes in increments and the laws have to be constantly adjusted and changed as they see the problems arise. This is of course the situation at the current time in May, 2002 with the real world application of both Village and Town legislation.
The biggest stumbling block seems to be the overruling of local government legislation by Ministers Discretion from the national level. Under our system, the winning political party gets the Keys to the Treasury and also appoints all their elected representatives to a Cabinet position. The Cabinet rules autocratically in Belize, and the Legislature and Senate are sort of rubber stamp entities of no functional use. Belize is not a country of government by laws. But by decree from Cabinet, or from elected representatives who are Cabinet Ministers automatically under the system at the choice of the one winning political party. The common mistake of foreign investors is in believing a law in Belize is real and works. Rather, it is who you know and sometimes who you pay! The British designed this system for exploitation and corruption adopted from the old Roman Empire.
At the local level in villages and towns, the application of the new legislation supposedly empowering them is also meeting with problems. There are no checks and balances within the legislation and no apparent methodology of enforcing what is written into law anyway. Oversight, accountability and transparency do not exist in real world application of the new laws governing towns and villages in Belize. The biggest problem is collusion, whenever a local Council is of he same party as that in power, cliques form for self enrichment, between the elected representative on the local scene who is also usually a Cabinet Minister with discretionary power to overrule all the laws of Belize, either himself, or herself; or through one of the Cabinet cronies in the same party. Belize is more ruled like a fiefdom, or plantation, with Belmopan being the headquarters for all decisions both on the local and national level.
One could say that the results after some years of these new empowering local legislations, have the need of a lot of tweaking and correcting as time passes. But things move slower in Belize than even in Florida of the USA. Political self interest and greed continue to play their part in thwarting the good intentions of the PUP political party now ruling. At least it appears that way.
Suffice to say, that in some instances local governing bodies are starting to handle more government services at the local level. This is to the credit of the PUP party intentions. There are still many complaints of the tendency of human nature to act in an autocratic ruler method by local councils as well as at the national level. This of course is to be expected and can be put down to "teething problems" in learning to distribute political power and responsibilities. There are supposedly in many cases at the village and town levels, requirements written into law that are supposed to act as checks and balances. Things like regular meetings, having a quorum, rule of law, accountability and transparency. These things though seem to have no teeth, or any methodology in law, that local citizens can require that the laws be followed. Consequently, in many cases as is usual in councils, one Chairman, or Mayor can, and often does make all the decisions on how things are run and paid for locally. Things often go astray, when the dictatorship aspects of "Ministers Discretion" conflict with decisions made at the local council level. There have been both problems with Cabinet Ministers, or elected representatives overruling local governing bodies; which bodes no good for the development of a society based on rule of law.
The idea of building a nation of Belize in which political power is horizontal instead of hiearcheal is a road loaded with potholes and bumps. The new legislations for Towns and Villages are clashing with the power of centralized Cabinet Ministers dealing with a plantation model of governing. Probably the biggest single problem is "Ministerial Discretion". Instead of "RULING" cabinet ministers, we need to assign Cabinet Ministers to the role of "MANAGEMENT", by laws defining their duties and limitations. And the sad thing is, we severly need limitations on Cabinet Ministers duties outlined in law as a check and balance. There also needs to be outlined in law, repercussions to enable Cabinet Ministers who overstep their powers to be penalized by citizens in law. At the local government level we require some method of punishing unilateral actions of Council members who act without authority given by Council meetings, or by citizen referendums in their villages or towns. There should also be in law, outlined penalties and the procedures for prosecuting unlawful acts by Councillors acting autocratically. Accountability has to be enforcable if Belize is going to turn democratic.
We have a long way to go yet in Belize to reduce big government, streamline the size of the national government and maximize services and efficiencies by local governments in each community of our nation. The PUP have made a start on this process. It now behooves us to get on with the job of correcting legislation that is seen not to be working the way desired in the real world of application. The tweaking and adjusting will go on for several decades and probably will never stop as we adjust to the pressures of the outside world and the need to compete in those international markets.
Direct government service to citizens in their communities is still a desired goal. Outlining restrictions on the powers of national government also a goal. Putting in checks and balances with methods outlined by law, whereby citizens can insist that their councillors perform according to the intent of the law or be penalized; are just as important to achieving a working consensual democracy in Belize.
The wealth and health of the nation for the future, says we need to get on with this job that the PUP have started and already many shortcomings in the performance of both the Town ACT and the VILLAGE ACT legislations are apparent and need to be fixed.
copied from the Belize Culture Debating Listserve
e.g.: THE VILLAGE COUNCIL AND THE LAW
May 24, 2002
This morning in a pre-dawn sweep at 5:30 a.m., the Caye Caulker Village Council together with the Corporal and the Sergeant on duty, under the instructions of the Hon. Patty Arceo (we understand) and Chairman Marin, went out and took into police custody the tables, chairs, glass display case and other items belonging to islander, Traci Meighan. Traci, you see, is a street vendor who sets up shop on the beach daily. In Caye Caulker, there are quite a number of people like her who make a living hawking their merchandise to passers-by.
Traci is a single mom with two children. There is Miss Rose, who sets up her rice and beans stand in front of the Oceanside Bar on weekend nights. There is Ms. Carolyn who also sets up her hot dog stand in front of Oceanside on a nightly basis. There is Ms. Paula who sells souvenirs street side to tourists to support her toddler. There is Ms. Marla who sells barbecue on weekends to support her children, and the list goes on÷
Each of these people does so to put food on the table of their families. They are trying to make a living in a decent way.
For months and months the Village Council has been harassing the local street vendors in an unsuccessful attempt to get them off the streets and beach areas. What they have against the street vendors is anybodyĖs guess, as the drug dealers camp out street side day and night, ply their trade with reckless abandon, and it appears that no one notices THEM. (Except maybe, ME?)
In many countries of the world, a flea market type atmosphere is what attracts visitors. Just ask any Belizean that has been to the U.S. and I am positive any single one will tell you that they have visited a flea market at least once. In fact, the Camden Market in London is so popular, the real estate there has become prime property. This type of atmosphere adds to a casual and bohemian aura which goes hand in hand with our island life and what the village stands for, I believe.
Still, I do realize my views are just that Į my own. The fact that I look at the street vendor atmosphere as contributing to the carnival atmosphere of island life does not necessarily mean that everyone else does too.
Obviously the Village Council and the Hon. Patty Arceo do NOT think it is attractive, hence their continued harassment of these people who are simply trying to make a living.
So÷ what can we do if some of us villagers like the atmosphere, and some of us donĖt? What happens if the Village Council does NOT like that type of atmosphere (and it is obviously they donĖt)?
The Village Council Act states specifically what the Village Council can and cannot do. There are many things that the Village Council CAN do, but one of those things it SHOULD NOT do is to break the law. It is not a law unto itself, but must follow the law just like any one of us. Even if all seven members of the village council together decided they did not like the street vendors, and agreed together that they would like to abolish street vending, this does not make it law. A law is not made by decree by the Village Council. Just because the Village Council decides on a certain course of action does not make that course of action mandatory or even the law. They would still need to follow certain guidelines.
Obviously the Caye Caulker Village Council needs to brush up on their obligations to this village. They need to take a moment to find out exactly what powers the Village Council Act gives to them. The Village Council Act certainly does NOT give powers to the Village Council chairman to rule by dictatorship, nor does it give the Chairman the power to rule by decree, nor does it give Mr. Marin the power to be a one-man Village Council. The law is very specific.
The Caye Caulker Village Council today became the laughing stock of the island once again (I say once again, as this same type of scenario seems to repeat itself fairly often) when moments after arresting Ms. MeighanĖs personal effects, toting the items down the street in the back of the village fire truck to the Police Station like a 5:30 a.m. street parade, they had to return her items to her. I felt embarrassed for them, but their incessant and increasing spitefulness inevitably steers them down that route.
The Village Council Act under Part IV (Powers and Duties of Village Councils) clearly states:
23. (1) A Council may from time to time make by-laws for the rule and good government of its village generally, and in particular in respect of all or any of the following matters :- (it proceeds to list the matters which are included).
(2) Before submitting the proposed by-laws to the House ÷ the council shall call a general meeting of the village, and present the by-laws to the consideration of the villagers. No by-laws shall be presented to the House unless they have been approved by a majority of those present at such meeting.
What this means, villagers, is that Mr. Fermin Marin, Ms. Patty Arceo, and the Village Council can TRY to dictate all they like about the number of bridges they will allow on the front of the island, or whether or not the fishermen can haul up their lobster traps on the beach, or whether the street vendors can set up shop on the streets and beaches, or whether people can haul up their boats on the beach to repair them, but we have no obligation to listen to their decrees. To make any of these rules law, they MUST FIRST hold a public meeting where WE the VILLAGERS vote as a majority to make it so. Even then, EVEN if we villagers agree on something, it still has to go to the House of Representative for approval by a majority there before it is put to law.