The pruned angsana trees in Bangsar
(Pic by KW Mak) WHEN the more-than-20-year-old angsana trees along Lorong Ara Kiri 2 in Bangsar were pruned bare in early June 2008, many were alarmed. It didn’t take long before a group of concerned and upset residents confronted the workers from Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) to stop the cutting.
Residents called up City Hall to protest, only to be told that the pruning was done upon the request of Happy Garden residents association chairperson Ahmad Nordeen to reduce the number of pesky crows in the area.
Residents were furious — firstly, because tree cutting is not a known or reliable method for reducing the crow population; and secondly, because only one residents association chairperson had instructed DBKL to cut the trees. The other three residents associations had not given their consent.
For two weeks, there was a standoff between the residents and DBKL. The City Hall workers insisted that the only person who could call off the tree cutting was the residents association chairperson. Even calls to the area’s Member of Parliament (MP), Nurul Izzah Anwar, led to nothing.
At wit’s end, the residents resorted to calling the office of former Lembah Pantai MP Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil. The tree cutting stopped immediately.
The incident raises questions for us as citizens.
Some wondered whether this was a tactic to smear the reputation of a Pakatan Rakyat MP, and that the whole scenario was orchestrated to show that Barisan Nasional (BN) politicians were still in control.
Others asked why their elected representative could not stop the tree cutting pending an investigation into the propriety of the exercise.
What is clear is that the public have no recourse when City Hall does something they disagree with — unless they resort to exercising a relationship of patronage with whoever is able to call the shots.
This incident only reinforces the need for local governments to have elected representatives who are more likely to represent the people’s interests.
Power to ignore
Local government elections were suspended in March 1965, with the federal government using the Confrontation with Indonesia as an excuse. In 1970, a royal commission report known as the Athinahappan Report called for local government elections to be reinstated; but the suspension of elections was instead made permanent under the Local Government Act 1976.
(Pic by KW Mak) There is the argument that the City Hall Advisory Board, which is provided for in the Federal Capital Act 1960, actually represents the public’s interest. Board members are assigned various portfolios and sit in on meetings related to their portfolios, such as traffic or licensing, to give their views.
Upon closer examination of the law, however, the board’s powers are limited to giving advice. Section 10 of the Federal Capital Act states that the datuk bandar (mayor) has the power to ignore and act in opposition to the board’s advice after consultation with the federal territories minister, subject to the reasons for his or her actions being minuted.
At the same time, although the law states that the King must approve the appointment of board members, there are no clear guidelines for this process. Previously, membership was restricted to BN component parties according to a quota. This is set to change with mounting public pressure, though how much change remains to be seen.
In the meantime, what all the elected MPs of Kuala Lumpur can do to influence City Hall’s decision-making is to call for press conferences to highlight the people’s ire over an issue (with the high probability that DBKL would respond with “we will look into it.”).
This basically means that an MP in a federal territory is actually made powerless by law to resolve local residents’ issues involving City Hall.
For residents living outside the federal territories, the advisory board is substituted with councillors, as provided for under the Local Government Act 1976.
Councillors have much more clout compared with their DBKL counterparts because councillors have the power to endorse by-laws, projects within the municipality, and the council’s budget.
Hence, the local authority cannot simply ignore councillors should the public complain to them.
Serious conflict of interest
Still, the appointment of councillors is neither clear nor transparent, which leaves the process open to abuse.
In the past, councillors appointed to the Petaling Jaya local authority were BN political appointees, with many of them doubling as property developers in a serious conflict of interest. Under the Pakatan Rakyat, there are still political appointees, but there are some provisions for non-governmental organisations.
Local government elections should be reintroduced, or a clearly defined and transparent system drawn up, to ensure that any appointment of councillors is open to public scrutiny. Such a system should be implemented for all local governments.
Both suggestions can be implemented if there is political will. Elections can be held by amending the Local Government Act and reinstating the suspended Local Government Elections Act 1960 in Parliament, while clear criteria for appointments can be set and implemented by the state executive councils.
These suggestions are not the answer to everything, but they would be a step in the right direction.
(© Dan Shirley / sxc.hu)
KW Mak is a DAP-appointed councillor in the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) who wishes he knew how he got the job, since the appointments are made in closed-door meetings.