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Local government: No to handpicked councillors

Voters casting their ballots enthusiastically at the Penang Forum 3 experimental local council poll in 2010

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It is about time councillors – like state representatives – are elected, writes David Teoh.

“Nothing more than glorified custodians.” That’s the impression I got when a someone made a statement about those who served as ‘mayors’ after local elections were banned in the 1960s.

Fast forward 20-plus years. “Only one car towed a month,” lamented a Penang Island councillor during his second term. He seemed disappointed that none of his colleagues shared his concern.

That said, state government leaders should not be drawn into the business of towed cars. Their business is not micro-managing but rather delegating such duties to competent, accountable and transparent councillors.

Another gripe I have heard is the perception that certain councillors seem to be getting too big for their heads.

It is nothing new. In the 1990s, the impression was that the president of the Penang Island council had more clout than the chief minister.

For starters, councils have the power to control development and ownership of land. Business licensing is another important responsibility. Basically, local governments can make or break a business entity.

I don’t want to get into floods, landslides and illegal demolitions. We’ll stick to traffic management, where the focus should be on moving people around more efficiently, instead of accommodating more vehicles.

Local councils should not be a wing of any political party. Going through the records of local government (during the 1950s and early 1960s), councillors invariably refused to rubber-stamp the wishes of the ruling government. That is what we call checks and balances.

My concern is not just about traffic but the cosiness between local government and developers.

Is the “Penang Transport Master Plan” (PTMP) more a private rather than a local government initiative to solve our traffic woes?

Should local councils be subservient – or perceived to be subservient – to developers?

If asked to name five councillors currently serving in their municipal or city councils, most Malaysians would be stumped. It would be easier for them to name the strikers of Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea – combined.

Why is it that we feel so distant from our councillors? Simply because we had no role in their appointments.

A position in the council is often seen as a stepping stone to becoming a state assembly member. That is unhealthy. But that is the reality.

There’s something called the separation of powers and when lines are blurred… No wonder some councillors act like state representatives.

It is about time councillors – like state representatives – are elected. In the case of local governments, ratepayers should be the ones who decide.

This may not be a perfect solution but it would be a step in the right direction. At least we won’t feel too bad when councillors start acting like state representatives. After all, they were elected.

As ratepayers, we need a better idea of the convictions of councillors. Candidates who put themselves up for selection have to make a pitch about what keeps them awake at night. They need to show us how we can sleep well.

The whole idea is to get the masses to cheer and jeer the councillors. In short to remind them that they are accountable for all their actions – like football players on the pitch – and that we’ll be closely watching them until the end of the season. Better yet with an ombudsman – similar to football’s VAR (video-assisted referee system) – with oversight responsibilities.

To end my gripe: where is the Penang Island Local Plan?

David Teoh Seng Aun, an Aliran member based in Penang, recently attended an Aliran writers’ workshop with the theme “Writing for Change in New Malaysia”, where he wrote this piece.

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