We need to lobby for all important decisions and minutes of meetings to be made available on both the Penang councils’ websites and for the actual council meetings to be opened to the public, says Lim Kah Cheng.
The Municipal Council of Penang has a long and proud history of local elections with the first elections being held way back in 1857. Its long history, however, also partly explains why the MPPP (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang or Penang Island Municipal Council) is such a “dinosaur” today. It is overwhelmed with tons of documents, some dating back to the 19th century, lots of property which it is not managing well, and some ancient by-laws which have not been revised.
The Municipal Council of George Town was established in 1857, the first local authority in Malaya, after Singapore. Three out of five municipal commissioners were elected by a limited franchise, but these elections were abolished in 1913.
In 1951, local elections were re-introduced for nine of the 15 commissioners for George Town. By 1956, George Town had become the first municipality in the Federation of Malaya to have a fully-elected council, with Councillor G H Goh of the Alliance Party as its first President.
On 1 January 1957, George Town became a city by a royal charter granted by Queen Elizabeth II, becoming the first town in Malaysia to become a city. The first Mayor was Councillor D S Ramanathan of the Labour Party.
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In 1965, the Federal Government suspended local elections. At that time, the City Council of George Town was the richest local authority in the country.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry under Senator Athi Nahappan, reporting in 1968, recommended the restoration of elected local councils, but this was never carried out.
Instead the Local Government Act 1976 provided for non-elected local councils and the local council areas in Penang were permanently merged into the two municipal councils: Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang (MPPP) and Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai (MPSP).
Since 1966, as a result of administrative re-organisations, the City of George Town no longer exists as a legal entity and does not appear in the list of cities published by the Federal Government although the City of George Town Ordinance 1957 had not been repealed. Space does not allow me to elaborate on this on-going debate.
Governing laws/legal structure of local authorities
The powers of local authorities are provided under the Local Government Act 1976 (LGA).
The relationship between the State Government and the local authority is spelt out under Sections 9 and 10 of the LGA.
S. 9: Power of State Authority to issue directions
(1) The State Authority may from time to time give the local authority directions of a general character, and not inconsistent with the provisions of this Act, on the policy to be followed in the exercise of the powers conferred and the duties imposed on the local authority by or under this Act in relation to matters which appear to the State Authority to affect the interests of the local authority area, and the local authority shall as soon as possible give effect to all such directions.
(7) If the Mayor or President does not agree with the other Councillors as to the exercise of any of his powers or of the powers of the local authority, he shall refer the matter to the Menteri Besar or Chief Minister of the State whose decision thereon shall be final and binding on the local authority.
PART III of the LGA provides for the appointment and discipline of officers and employees of the local authorities. This is important as the local authorities need to assert more control over the performance of their staff instead of being held back by the Public Service Department.
PART IV of the LGA provides for the conduct of business by local authorities. I would like to emphasise the democratic powers provided under Sections 23 and 27 of the LGA which should be fully restored in practice.
S. 23. Meetings of local authority to be public
All meetings of the local authority shall be open to the public and to representatives of the Press unless the local authority by resolution at the meeting otherwise decides:
Provided that this section shall not apply to any Committee of the local authority unless such Committee by resolution otherwise decides.
Over the years, the full council meetings which are open to the public are shortened to just approving decisions already made in the Committees which are not open to the public. There is a need to restore the original spirit of this section.
S.27. Minutes ….
(3) The minutes of all proceedings…. shall be kept at the office of the local authority and shall at all reasonable times be open to the inspection of any Councillor or rate-payer of the local authority area and of any officer of the Government of the Federation or of the State…., any of whom may at all reasonable times make a copy of any part thereof without fee.
In the name of transparency and accountability, we need to lobby for the minutes of all proceedings to be made available on both councils’ websites and for all applications for planning permissions, building plans, etc to be displayed there as well.
Other provisions of the LGA include Financial Provisions, Control of Public Places, Pollution of Streams, Food, Markets, Sanitation and Nuisances, By-Laws and Penalties, and Rating and Valuation.
The Town And Country Planning Act 1976 provides for the proper control and regulation of town and country planning, development plans, tree preservation, the Appeals Board, etc
The Street, Building and Drainage Act, 1974, (which precedes the LGA) consolidates laws relating to street, drainage and building in local authority areas. It is the enabling legislation for the Uniform Building By-Laws 1984 (UBBL), which control construction/inspection of structures, technical requirements for fire prevention, structural integrity, electrical wiring, ventilation and sanitary facilities.
I wish to emphasise By-law 34A of the Uniform Buildings By-Laws which was gazetted in Penang on 11 November 1993. These by-laws make it mandatory for all buildings (except for existing shop houses and single family private dwelling houses) to provide access to disabled persons to get into, out of and within the buildings. Those built before the commencement of these by-laws must be altered to comply within three years of commencement. Unfortunately they are largely not adhered to.
The Road Transport Act 1987 provides regulation of motor vehicles and traffic on roads and parking, protection of third parties against risks arising out of the use of motor vehicles, etc. It is the enabling legislation for local authorities to regulate car parking provisions.
Work of councillors
All councillors must attend the ordinary meetings (Mesyuarat Biasa Majlis, MBM) of the local authorities which take place once a month to:
- be informed of the decisions of the One Stop Centre (OSC), which is the committee that considers all the applications for planning permission and other plans. Only four councillors sit in the OSC together with the President of the Council and other officers;
- confirm the decisions of the Committees;
- seek clarifications and sometimes debate on issues which rarely happens as the councillors expect their fellow councillors to respect each other’s decisions;
- make policy speeches; and
- meet the press.
All Councillors are appointed to two to four committees and each committee meets at least once a month. The Committees are:
- Pentadbiran dan Kewangan (MPSP)
- Pengurusan Kewangan (MPPP)
- Pelesenan dan Penguatkuasa (MPSP)
- Penguatkuasaan dan Pendidikan Awam (MPPP)
- Lalulintas dan Infrastruktur (MPSP and MPPP)
- Pembangunan dan Pengindahan (MPSP)
- Perancangan Pemajuan (MPPP)
- Pusat Setempat (OSC) (MPSP and MPPP)
- Kesihatan Awam (MPPP only)
- Pihak Berkuasa Perlantikan dan Pihak Berkuasa Tatatertib (MPPP and MPSP)
- Tender Boards (MPPP and MPSP)
Most councillors also take part in the following:
- Technical committees or task forces, e.g. review building guidelines, address problems, cemetery, poverty programme, bus stops, review of rent, dealing with stray cows, etc;
- Interviews of applicants, e.g. for jobs, licences;
- Visits to Council properties, Pulau Burung dump site, IWK treatment plants and sites, etc;
- Inspections e.g. of eateries, advertisement buntings and streamers;
- Briefings by and meetings with other parties, eg the SPCA, contractors (wishing to provide alternative LED lighting or to put up bus stops), solid waste, etc;
- Official functions organized by the Penang State Government;
- Functions of other organisations e.g. clan associations, museum, etc;
- Handling complaints by members of the public;
- Informal meetings with officers of the Councils, JKR, JPS; etc
- Pre-MBM (for MPPP only) and drafting of minutes.
Role of councillors
It is my view that the role of the councillors is to:
- work to achieve the vision of the council. In MPPP the motto is “Leading We Serve”. Both councils adopt the State Government’s CAT principles. As an NGO representative, I work to promote the objectives set out in the Penang Forum Declaration;
- shape policies – e.g. on hawkers, use of open spaces, illegal structures, traffic, tender procedures, use of resources e.g. renting of premises;
- plan budgets/oversee expenses and income, e.g. every month we check on income, expenses, arrears owing and consider applications for use of council properties;
- oversee the work of the officers/staff;
- act as a bridge between local authorities and rate payers;
- check abuse and corruption;
- hold constructive dialogues with the state and federal departments;
help solve problems, e.g. stray animals;
- not just address the symptoms but look for longer term solutions, e.g. congestion related to car park provisions, public transport, bus stops and pavements, by-laws;
- promote positive values, e.g. racial unity, good governance, gender equality, empathy for the disadvantaged groups
Prerequisites of a councillor
- Personal integrity, honesty and humility;
- Ability to make time for council work, which is a lot, including time needed to do ‘homework’, e.g. read minutes and seek information;
- Mature enough to shoulder heavy responsibilities, especially when the councils are dealing with budgets of over RM200 million a year;
- Some form of expertise to contribute;
- A desire to serve the people;
- Ability to be constructive;
- No hidden agenda for self enrichment or power;
- A vision and a passion to achieve that vision.
- Courage to stand up for what s/he believes in and to speak up even if in the minority.
I can only conclude with an appeal: please vote wisely for the civil society representatives to be nominated to the local authorities.
Lim Kah Cheng, an MPPP Councillor, made the above presentation at the Penang Forum 3 elections held on 14 November 2010.