Election footing is on, as Local Government elections will be held within 90 days of the Privy Council’s May 18 judgment.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley yesterday announced that law is expected to be presented in Parliament on Monday to validate regional corporations’ actions from last December onwards - and once passed, the LG elections will be called within 90 days of the May 18 judgment.
Rowley revealed the direction in an address to the House of Representatives at the Red House in Port-of-Spain.
This, following last Thursday’s Privy Council ruling that Government’s extension of the Local Government term last December to December 3, 2023, was unlawful. Since then, some corporation officials have expressed concern over conducting operations and about councillors’ status.
Rowley said yesterday, “I want to make it abundantly clear that the Government has no choice...but to accept the ruling of the Privy Council and be guided by its findings and their effect on our operations and intentions.”
Rowley detailed steps since October 2020 to introduce amendments via the Miscellaneous Provisions (Local Government Reform Bill) 2020 “... in a genuine desire to bring about Local Government reform to better serve the burgesses and improve the quality of their lives.”
He noted its passage by both Houses of Parliament, “Noticeably, without Opposition support.”
Detailing how Government had undertaken the matter (See box), Rowley said proclamation of a number of sections of the Act from November 7th, 2022, triggered an “interpretation battle opportunity.”
He noted a challenge on the issue from an ordinary activist citizen (Ravi Balgobin Maharaj) on November 15, 2022, and the defeat of that challenge all the way to the Appeal Court, which granted permission to appeal to the Privy Council.
The appeal was done on February 13, 2023 and on May 18, the Privy Council delivered judgment.
Rowley, who noted the split Privy Council views and other aspects of the ruling, added, “We see a change, not a crisis and there’s definitely no need for the mayhem, sackcloth and ashes that some desire.”
Law validating corporations’ actions on Mon
The PM said the Government must now act to rectify any shortcomings that now exist that were not there before. “I refer here specifically to the actions and workings of the Local Government for the affected period December 2022 to the date of the adverse ruling and beyond,” he said.
Rowley said the Attorney General has already engaged and described “the calming principles of settled law in the context of the de facto officer doctrine.”
Attorney General Reginald armour did that in the Senate on Tuesday.
“By the application of the common law de facto officer doctrine, the actions and decisions of the corporations will be recognised by law as valid,” Rowley added.
Consistent with that advice, Rowley said the Deputy Chief Parliamentary Counsel is in the process of drafting the necessary legislation to validate all acts of the corporations from December 2022 up to May 18th, 2023, and for the three-month period from that (to election).
Rowley said this legislation is expected to be ready to be laid and debated and taken through all its stages in Parliament next Monday.
Saying there is no crisis, he added, “All that is required is for the Government to act within a reasonable time frame to maintain an orderly response and effect the necessary processes, including the calling of elections, gleaned within the rulings set out by the Privy Council.”
Elections between May 18-Aug 18
Following the Privy Council’s decision, the PM said the time for calling an election is now past due.
“The Government is duty-bound to call an election in accordance with the statutory procedure prescribed in the Act and the Representation of the People Act.
“Pursuant to the provisions of the Representation of the People Act, the President, acting in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet [S. 81 of the Constitution] is now to be mandated to issue a writ, setting the Local Government Elections in motion.”
Rowley added, “Under existing law, a period of not less than 35 days must lapse between the issue of the writ, and the taking of the poll. Immediately, and within three months of the 18th of May, the Government will move to issue the writ so that a poll can be taken within the usual 90-day window.
“With the arrival of the new decision, the option always exists to extend the office of the incumbents up to the 18th of May, so as to validate their actions, prior to May 18th, and to call an election to be held within three months from the 18th of May 2023. Of the many options available, this is the one most suitable and the one chosen by the Government at this time.”
Consistent with this advice and decision, he said the Deputy CPC is on standby for drafting the necessary validation legislation expected for Monday’s debate.
“... Once this is accomplished, the date for Local Government, within the 90-day window will be announced,” Rowley added.
The PM also noted that the Privy Council didn’t cite any constitutional breach in the matter.
Rowley said, “All five judges of the Privy Council decided that a change in the length of the terms of office of the incumbent councillors and aldermen did not amount to a contravention or breach of any provision of the Constitution.”
On accusations from the Opposition and “some elements in the media” that Government had breached citizens’ constitutional rights, he said, “The Government pleads not guilty!”
He added, “Up to the 17th of May, 2023, the Government’s interpretation prevailed, supported by the reasoned decisions of our High Court and Appeal Court. This is the proof that our legal and protection systems worked and at no time did the Government act with impunity or wanton disregard for our laws or with any malicious intent towards citizens and their rights.”
PM blanks Kamla’s query
After Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s address yesterday, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar queried the status of existing incumbent councillors.
But Rowley, saying he’d been “crystal clear,” added, “I’m not the legal adviser of the Opposition Leader. I’ve said everything I need to say on this matter, I’ve covered the period up to the May 18 decision and I’ve indicated the Government’s actions going forward from May 18 to 90 days and I have no further advice to give the Opposition Leader - except to ask her to stop writing all over the world and nastying up T&T’s name!”
In his address, Rowley outlined the process of trying to produce the decades-long “elusive dream” of LG reform - and that his Government had undertaken to get it done.
“Notwithstanding the difficulties, lack of support from some of our colleagues and myriad obstacles in the way, this Government believes that a reformed and modernised system of Local Government, as presented after years of complaints and resultant widespread consultation, was in the best interest of the nation as a whole,” he added.
“It was within this mission that the Government pressed on cautiously but resolutely to bring this about by the passage of the new law and its sectional, step-by-step proclamation, as the necessary preparations were made to operationalise the new arrangements.”
Since some reform measures are quite novel and far reaching, he said Government’s intention was that the best way to have eased these into being was to have “extended the application of the terms of the new law, as intended, to the incumbents in such a way that it afforded some element of a smooth transition.”
“This necessitated a short extension of the life of the incumbents and it was the Government’s interpretation and option that this exigency was taken care of in the provisions of the new law. By Legal Notice No. 206 of 2022, of 7th November 2022, a number of sections of this Act were proclaimed and came into force from 8th November 2022.”
However, the proclamation was challenged on November 15, 2022, by Ravi Balgobin Maharaj. Rowley noted the High Court’s refusal to grant the applicant’s injunction and the Appeal Court’s dismissal of the subsequent appeal - but the Appeal Court granted permission to appeal to the Privy Council.
“The grant of the appeal to the Privy Council is further proof of the systems being allowed to work...” Rowley said.
He added, “Given the nature of the interpretation problem being grappled with, it was not surprising that there was a split decision at the Privy Council.”
He noted Lords Richards, Reed and Hodge statements at paragraph 20 of the ruling.
They’d stated “..’.On any footing, the absence of any detailed provisions concerning local government elections leads to the inevitable conclusion that a change in the length of the terms of office of incumbent Councillors and Aldermen cannot amount to a contravention of the Constitution. The term for which representatives have been elected is important but an increase by one year in the term of incumbent Councillors and Aldermen does not of itself breach any of provision of the Constitution’.”
Rowley said the simple question to be determined at every stage in this legal contest was whether as a matter of construction, applying relevant principles of construction, the amendments to sections 11 and 12 apply to incumbent councillors and aldermen at the time that the amendments came into force.
“The majority (Law Lords) decided the amendments applied to councillors and aldermen after the amendments came into force and not to the incumbent councillors and aldermen. The minority decided that the amendments did apply to the incumbent councillors and aldermen. So, even down to the bitter end there is a divergence of views on this prickly interpretation of the meaning of the contested section.”
Also, in the final declaration, two judges voted in favour of preserving the status quo of the successful defences of the relevant interpretation and three voted to disagree.