By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
RETIRED Abaco publisher David Ralph is asking the government to take a closer look at the successes and frustrations of the Family Island local government system before it moves ahead with its implementation in the capital.
Mr Ralph, in response to recent government pronouncements over the status of New Providence consultations, stressed the current system has frustrated many qualified and motivated professionals to withdraw their service.
He said the local government system's extension to New Providence was only a matter of time, and posed great opportunity, but stressed the system would be easier to adopt if meaningful changes were enacted ahead of implementation.
He noted high expectations will quickly deflate once officials begin to grapple with local issues in view of how central government functions, and how funding is allocated.
"After serving a three-year term in local government," Mr Ralph wrote in a letter sent to The Tribune, "those with ideas and initiative frequently quit in frustration. Various administrators have confirmed that the first term of local government in 1996 as the best as it was motivated individuals who took part.
"All administrators that I have met said the system has gone downhill following that first term. The system still works, but it is often less qualified persons who are involved."
Mr Ralph is the former publisher of The Abaconian, and has covered local government meetings in Central Abaco and the Hope Town district regularly over the past 25 years.
He said he attended a major local government meeting for Central Abaco last week, which saw Abaco's two members of Parliament, roughly ten heads of various government departments on Abaco, the town committee chairmen for Murphy Town, Dundas Town, Marsh Harbour and Spring City along with the chief councillor and council members for the district.
"It was a three-hour session voicing complaints on government indifference to Abaco's local issues," Mr Ralph wrote.
One example of government indifference raised by Mr Ralph, was the common practice of withholding 12 percent of each district's budget.
"Each month's available funds have been reduced by 12 percent," he said.
"The withheld amount is released at the end of the fiscal year next June when local government councils must justify its use. It is a futile attempt to cause local government councils to be frugal with less money.
"In mid-June the money is released with no fore-warning," Mr Ralph continued, "and the local government councils scramble to spend it legally before July 1. If it is not spent, it reverts to the Treasury. That is to be avoided as it tells officials that the district can get by with less money for the following year."
Mr Ralph pointed to two more examples of indifference: in the first, Hope Town residents donated an automobile to be used by the area police, but placed the title in Hope Town's name so it could not be transferred elsewhere by police. However, he said, challenges arose because the police department cannot buy fuel for a vehicle it does not own.
In the second instance, a Man-O-War resident donated a residence for use by the Ministry of Health and the government nurse, but could not obtain medical equipment because the ministry cannot provide items to facilities they do not own.
"These are examples of central government's indifference or lack of understanding that illustrate the frustrations of communities trying to be helpful but being rebuffed by government regulations," Mr Ralph wrote.
"Somehow the government's different elements need to work together more closely. For local government to succeed in New Providence, this gap of indifference must be overcome."
Senator Ranard Henfield - who chairs a National Advisory Committee on local government - in a recent press release had praised the introduction of a strong local government system that would empower residents in New Providence to resolve such local issues as traffic congestion.
In his written response, Mr Ralph pointed to local traffic issues in Abaco as an example of frustrations that can arise.
"Local people trying to implement local traffic issues is not a simple matter," he said.
"Hope Town has been trying for years to get local traffic rules in place but finds it frustrating to get Nassau's cooperation."
Mr Ralph wrote: "Although local input is encouraged, the actual process is long and cumbersome. The Local Government Act gives local government the authority to create traffic patterns. However, there is no help given on how to navigate the cumbersome process through the required Nassau agencies."
Mr Ralph suggested candid meetings with Family Island councils and town committees to glean institutional knowledge of the more than 20-year-old system, underscoring the list of people reportedly targeted by the planning committee did not have actual working knowledge.
"Persons at the top of government's hierarchical chain are not the ones to consult with. Candid talks should be held with actual Family Island persons who serve but are constrained by the system," he wrote.
"Earlier mention was made of 24 distinct areas suitable for local government in New Providence. It is not practical to think of 24 mini-works departments that would be needed for local government to fix potholes and traffic lights. This is where there needs to be improved efficiency within existing government departments, requiring them to cooperate with the local government groups."