ACCORDING to the Local Government Act 1976, councillors are akin to a board of directors. Our role is to devise policies and guidelines that will make the council function better. Being a councillor is not meant to be a full-time job to troubleshoot and resolve all the issues that arise for residents.
Construction (© Ajay Kumar Singh / sxc.hu) Yet, as a councillor, I have been receiving all kinds of calls. From panicky hawkers who hear rumours that MBPJ officers will be arresting them, and irate residents who complain about construction noise in their neighbourhood at 1am, to people who want me to make their parking fines “disappear”.
These complaints point toward system failure within the council, where the process of resolving issues is not working, not well thought out, and cannot be carried out without intervention from councillors.
As much as I would like to resolve problems with a snap of my fingers, doing that basically involves abusing my power as a councillor. Whatever solution I come up with can just as easily be undone when I am no longer around if it was reached without going through proper process and procedures.
A proper system can stem power abuse and prevent many of the dubious activities that plagued the past council, such as the infamous MPPJ Football Club and the millions spent on it.
Logo of the now-defunct MPPJ
Football ClubThe majority of billboards in Petaling Jaya are illegal because the council, now known as the MBPJ, disregarded proper licensing application processes. Industry players have told me of clandestine meetings where they were asked to pay money to the then MPPJ Football Club before their licenses would be processed.
Further abuses include the approval of several development projects that did not go through the proper consultation process with nearby residents. This places the MBPJ in a precarious legal quandary. On one hand, the council has issued the development order to the developer, and any attempt to withdraw that order would likely lead to a legal, and very expensive, dispute. On the other, the residents want the development order revoked because due process was not followed. They, too, reserve the right to sue the MBPJ for not adhering to the legal process.
I am unable to divulge more information on such issues in order to protect the MBPJ from lawsuits. It is the people’s money that is used to defend the council and pay off any damages should the council lose a case. These issues, arising from mismanagement, are just the tip of the iceberg.
Section 33 of the Local Government Act 1976 gives the council, officers, employees and other persons acting under the local authority’s direction immunity to any claims such as for damages or demands or liability. It also stipulates that any expenses incurred in defending such claims would be borne by the Local Authority Fund.
What this essentially means is that unless you or I can prove an act was done in bad faith, it’s not going to be easy to hold accountable any government officer for a bad decision.
The law was not intended to protect public servants who are corrupt. However, because of bad documentation practices in the past, it is not easy to prove who is responsible for the number of dubious acts by the previous council. Additionally, in the event of a lawsuit that proves the MBPJ was liable, public funds would be used to pay for damages.
This is one reason why the public must be concerned and demand for proper procedures. Without checks and balances, a councillor, or senior council officers for that matter, would have far too much power and be tempted to abuse it because he or she can get away with it.
To ensure accountability, the MBPJ has set up an audit and corporate governance committee headed by councillor Michael Soon. The system is being scrutinised and finetuned.
Soon explains: “The committee reports to the council directly. There are five committee members, of which two are accountants, one a lawyer, one from Transparency International, and one an IT specialist. We use the Malaysian Code of Corporate Governance as our template. Neither council staff nor the Datuk Bandar sits on the committee. I would like to have an architect or engineer in it, too. Within one month, we have had three meetings already.”
But until the MBPJ finetunes the system to the point that accountability and responses to the public are automatic, the onus will still be on the public to demand for replies from councillors and council officers.
Even as councillors attempt to rectify the procedures and processes to ensure accountability, we need the public to have a change in attitude.
Not everything needs to be directed at a councillor, especially when some issues can be resolved with a call to the MBPJ hotline at 03-7954 2020.
Make sure you ask for a complaint reference number, and note the officer’s name, and the date and time of the call so that you can follow up on your complaint later.
If an application for licenses and permits is rejected, be sure to get a reply from the council with the reasons why it was rejected. This will alert you to the proper procedures that need to be followed, and prevent the officer from asking for bribes.
Say no to bribes (© Tianbin Liu / Dreamstime) Only when the officers fail to respond to a request for help despite following procedures should you approach a councillor. In my case, I would attempt to get an issue resolved while tracking down where the system failed so that it can be rectified.
Paying a bribe to speed up a process is just doing oneself and others a disservice because it will encourage the officer to expect bribes from everyone. If you bribe an officer because you want the rules broken in your favour, you may get away with it. But the moment a legitimate complaint is made, you will pay the price for it.
Changing the way the MBPJ works is already going to take some doing. But that has been happening to some extent since the March elections. Still, that alone is inadequate. What is also needed is a change in public attitudes. We need the public to work with councillors and the council if we are ever going to solve the issues that plague all of us.
MBPJ councillor KW Mak wants more time to date his girlfriend. He wishes residents would understand that when he turns down requests to attend weekend functions, it’s because he needs to have time out, too.