The Senate committee on Internal Affairs and Good Governance has presented to plenary “a comprehensive work” on a bill known as Local Government Law of Liberia 2017, with many senators cautiously welcoming it.
The Bill was presented to the legislature by the Executive Branch of Government in August, 2015 and subsequently passed by the House of Representatives in December of the same year and sent to the senate for concurrence.
For two years, the senate, through its relevant committee with the involvement of local and international experts and traditional leaders, conducted three public hearings in Buchanan, Ganta, and Tubmanburg respectively.
During yesterday’s debate, which followed a long PowerPoint presentation by Chairman of Internal Affairs Committee Gbleh-bo Brown in the Chambers of the senate, many senators who participated welcomed the provision in the Bill that called for the decentralization of the country through the election of local government authorities, especially superintendents, commissioners and mayors, but spoke against the election of chiefs.
Grand Cape Mount County Senator Varney Sherman, who displayed a huge consignment of Liberia Law Review books, among many arguments, welcomed the election of superintendents and commissioners but did not include chiefs, whom he said work under the “higher-ups.”
Sen. Sherman urged that his colleagues, who are against the election of superintendents, should not see themselves as being threatened by the strengthening of local government, and suggested that the committee introduce a standardized criteria for qualifications for the creation of cities, statutory districts and other local government structures.
However, Liberia being a unitary state, Article 56 (A) says, “All cabinet ministers, deputy and assistant cabinet ministers, ambassadors, … superintendents and other government officials, both military and civilian are appointed by the President. But the ‘B’ says, there shall be elections of paramount, clan and town chiefs by the registered voters… to serve for a term of six years.”
Constitutionally, Liberia currently has 113 cities, with Sinoe and Grand Kru counties having 42 and 32 cities each.
Sen. Brown at a press conference yesterday expressed the belief that decentralization will strengthen the country’s resolve for peace, adding: “Since 1847, governance system has been heavily centralized, with every major decision, activity, direction coming from Monrovia and decisions handed down to the local people, so decentralization is to give the legal regulatory framework some of the powers back to the people.”
Brown maintained that citizens want to participate in decisions as to the running of the country as well as decide their own fate from the clan, chieftain, the district and to the county levels.
“Every county is going to have a development plan and agenda through the Social Development Fund, and this calls for a decentralized plan using the participatory approach, which eventually brings ownership and helps bring about sustainability and peace,” Sen. Brown said. He served as Maryland County Superintendent during the regime of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Sen. Brown furthered that passage of the Bill will promote economic development in the counties, as the law will empower every county to collect some level of revenues that will be used for their own activities, while at the same time helping the central government.
Administratively, Brown assured the passage of the Bill will help in the harmonization and rationalization of the country’s local structures, adding: “The current system is overlapping, with some countries having a proliferation of cities and structures.
“So if this bill is passed, it is going to standardize the creation of cities, statutory districts and it will make sense out of our current local government structures,” Sen. Brown said.
He admitted, however, that the law as proposed is not perfect with some questions, which he said the committee has plans to remove.
He maintained that his committee is convinced that the benefits to be accrued from the Bill outweighs some of the concerns harbored by other senators.
He told reporters that his committee is convinced that the Bill will be passed before the end of May.
Meanwhile, Internal Affairs Minister Varney Sirleaf, who was present at yesterday’s debate, informed senators that his ministry has already commenced the process of boundary harmonization, “which is a very important component of the Local Government Bill, and prerequisite to some of the conditions for its passage.”
However there are concerns that the passage of such a bill could be a first step towards the holding of a national referendum on the issue, since Article 56 clearly provides for county superintendents to be appointed by the president and that they shall hold office at the pleasure and will of the president. Anything to the contrary will constitute a blatant violation of the constitution, according to a prominent lawyer(name withheld).