New rules governing Bermuda’s municipal elections passed the final legislative hurdle after being approved by the Senate on Wednesday.
The Municipalities Amendment Act 2015 introduces a proportional representation electoral system for the first time in Bermuda’s history and was praised by Government Senators as a broadening of the franchise which protects minority interests.
But Opposition Progressive Labour Party Senators and one independent Senator, Joan Dillas-Wright, voted against the measure citing concerns that residential voters of the City of Hamilton could be marginalised and that business owners could manipulate the new system.
Under the new system, an eight member council will be elected in three segregated polls to be held simultaneously for each of the island’s two municipalities. The Mayor will be voted for by all qualified voters, a business ratepayers’ poll will nominate and elect councillors to represent the muni’s businesses and qualified residential voters will nominate and elect their own councillors.
Business and residents will be allocated a number of seats on the council proportionate to their respective populations, but each group will be guaranteed a minimum of two seats.
Much of Wednesday’s debate centred around the impact of the measure on the City of Hamilton, where there are approximately 1700 business ratepayers and roughly 650 eligible residential voters.
The formula for calculating the allocation of seats ensures that the smaller of the two groups (whether residents of business ratepayers) in any municipality requires a lower threshold,” said Municipalities Minister Michael Fahy in introducing the bill.
For example, the smaller group requires the threshold of (one registered voter) more than two-eighths to be allocated three seats, and (one registered voter) more than three-eighths to be allocated four seats.”
Those owning more than one tax paying business in the municipality will be able to nominate others to vote on their behalf, but non-resident owners of residential units will not have a vote.
It is conceivable to have one individual person own the controlling interest in multiple companies which in turn own or occupy valuation units, and each may, in turn, appoint different nominees to vote on behalf of those valuation units, said Sen Fahy.
However, this scenario is very unlikely, Madam President, and it has to be balanced against the administrative unworkability of a scheme that pierces the corporate veil. It is certainly unhelpful to talk about hypothetical situations where a single person ‘owns’ 10 different companies. Finally, contrary to what the Opposition may say, there is no ambiguity in the legislation. This Bill simply reflects a policy choice made by the Government.
The changes, to be implemented in upcoming elections in May this year, represent the culmination of a series of reforms which began in 2010 under the then Progressive Labour Party Government.
While the PLP’s reforms stripped City businesses of the right to vote, and enfranchised residents for the first time, the current reforms restore the business vote. This time around the PLP accepted that the businesses should have a say in who runs the local government, but criticised what they said was an imbalance of power that favoured the businesses.
Prior to the 2010 reform, only businesses could vote in the local government.
PLP Senator Diallo Rabain led the Opposition’s charge against the bill.
Instead of swinging the pendulum from pole to pole, why can we not have something in the middle?
He argued that an owner of multiple businesses could effectively vote multiple times in the same election, using nominees – a tactic used in the past when property owners who had an extra “plus vote” for national elections, could multiply their votes by subdividing their land.
If you own a building but don’t occupy it, you get to vote. If you own a building that happens to be residential but don’t occupy you don’t get to vote. How is that fair?” he said.
We need to look at how we can do this so its equitable to all owners of property in the Corporation, plain and simple.
The Opposition pointed out that the measures had an opposite impact on City of Hamilton elections compared to St George’s in that business ratepayers greatly outnumber residents in the island’s capital but the dynamic is reversed in the east end municipality.
St Georges’ residents will have six seats on their council – compared to two seats for the business ratepayers – while with the City of Hamilton “its almost the complete opposite” as businesses outnumber residents, Senator Renee Ming said.
Their voice has been weakened,” she said.
I don’t see how this could be considered a fair and democratic process when one demographic completely loses their voice in what we believe to be enhancements.
But her call for separate legislation for the two municipalities to address the imbalance was rejected by Sen Fahy who said that with a growing residential population in the City of Hamilton, some balance would be restored.
Independent Senator James Jardine declared himself “not entirely happy with this business of proportional representation” adding that he hoped that all candidates would canvass voters for their support and seek to represent all voters. “If people aren’t prepared to do that, they shouldn’t be in the election.”
In response, Sen Fahy stressed that council seats to be filled by business representatives would be voted on by business ratepayers, while those to be filled by residents’ representatives would be elected by the residents.
New Government Senator Georgia Marshall reminded her colleagues of the history of the law, noting it dated back to the establishment of the Corporation of Hamilton in 1793 and originally provided for voting rights for merchants because the intent was for the City to become the country’s trade centre.
Voting rights were expanded to include one resident per household under the 1923 legislation.
Sen Marshall claimed – to Opposition objections – that the previous Government had intended to abolish the Corporations completely. She defended the legislation as recognising “the importance of self governing cities and towns” and community participation by the City’s stakeholders.
It is a piece of legislation that reflects democracy at its best.
Opposition Senator Marc Daniels reiterated his party’s belief in social justice and voter parity. History showed that the City of Hamilton was “designed for business interests”.
The whole Act was designed to create a system for commerce and business.
Sen Daniels added:
We are not against businesses being able to exercise a right to vote. What we are concerned with is the amount of votes that can be abused under this system.
We’ve had centuries of advancement for the commercial interests of this country which are part of our national interests, which should never overshadow the people of this country.
The rise of “Team Hamilton” the first municipal government elected by the residents of the City of Hamilton, was a “marked departure from those 200 years of the municipality representatives that we’ve seen today”, Sen Daniels added.
Now that there’s a shift in government there’s an attempt to revert, diminish and water down powers and privileges that have been given to the community which has been traditionally marginalised.
He said the impression was being given that business people are the ones who should be “directing the flow of traffic, should be setting the pace and the vision for the future of the City of Hamilton which is not showing much of a marked departure than it was in 1793. So the question is what are we evolving to?”
Sen Daniels added that it should not be the case that more electoral power should go to those with more wealth.
The fact that I hold more wealth, I hold more power, I have more companies and the like should not then be a feature to say I have more value in this scheme.
Independent Senator Joan Dillas-Wright agreed with the Opposition’s concerns that the measure lacked clarity and could marginalise the residential population in the City of Hamilton, saying she had received a number of queries from City stakeholders.
In his closing remarks, Sen Fahy said the law’s intent was to protect those who felt they were disenfranchised and stressed that minority interests are protected by the new system.
He noted that the turnout in the City of Hamilton elections in 2011 was just around 200 voters of a total of more than 650 eligible voters.
I’m hoping in the next election that more people come out and exercise the rights that they have been rightfully been given since 2010.
He said that non-resident owners of residential buildings in the City could set up a management company which pays rates to the municipality which would earn them the right to vote. But non rate-paying subsidiaries of companies would not be allowed a vote.
He added that extra protection is provided by the fact that municipalities are required to open their meetings to the public “save for extraordinary circumstances”.
They would have a real opportunity to see how their representatives are or are not representing their interests.
Sen Fahy continued:
I do not believe the voices of the residents will be weakened. I think that they will be strengthened because they know exactly who is acting on their behalf because they are voting directly for them. The danger in continuing to find ways to allow others and more and more people to vote … is that it simply ends up diluting the residential vote. It doesn’t mean to say that just because you happen to own a home in Hamilton, means that you have the same concerns as a resident. If that’s the case and you want to run it as a business you probably have a property management company that’s doing it on your behalf… And they will be voting as business ratepayers no matter what. It would be impossible for us to take a property owner who’s not a resident and make them vote as residents of the City when they don’t live there.
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