THE issue over Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL)’s decision to raise assessment rates has thus far been mostly a war of words. This has been between irate ratepayers and elected representatives on one side, and DBKL and the Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor on the other.
In my blog, I have explained what the revaluation exercise means and why the typical objections against the rate increase will not work. I have also explained that a local council is a body corporate for ratepayers, and it charges property owners a rate for the maintenance of public properties like roads and drains. And, in case it wasn’t obvious, our streets are not lit up for free at night. Even though Tenaga Nasional Bhd provides a 50% discount, the annual bill still comes up to almost RM8 million for the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ). So imagine how much more it would be for DBKL.
It is, therefore, a ratepayer’s duty to pay the assessment, and there are sufficient clauses in the Local Government Act to punish errant ratepayers. But what are ratepayers to do against a local council that doesn’t appear to answer to the public?
We firstly need to understand why DBKL – and to a lesser extent, local councils under state governments – do not have to answer to ratepayers. In a typical body corporate, any person who is part of it should be able to gain reasonable access to meeting minutes, audited accounts and other documents pertinent to the running of the organisation. In most circumstances, a body corporate would have an annual general meeting to present the accounts and allow members to vote for the management committee.
Not so with the local council. For one, the government suspended local council elections in March 1965. Local elections have not been restored since. Today, councillors are appointed by the menteri besar or chief minister under the Local Government Act 1976. For state governments, these appointments are used to reward loyal party members. Hence, councillors are unlikely to go against the political party that appointed them. This means that councillors do not truly represent ratepayers because ratepayers have no say in who gets to sit in office.
The Local Government Act also does not have a specific provision for annual reports. However, under the Barisan Nasional, it was standard practice for Selangor local councils to produce annual reports. The purpose was to have each department state its services and how its performance was publicly rated, and to project how it intended to improve services.
When the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) took over Selangor in 2008, the practice of annual reports was stopped. The PR government also stamped numbers on each page of meeting minutes that were distributed to councillors. That way, the copy that was given to each councillor could be identified, making it difficult for a councillor to share the minutes discreetly.
Another problem is that local councils do not provide ratepayers with easy access to meeting minutes even though the Local Government Act provides for it. For those who know about this clause, MBPJ’s interpretation of this “access” is that ratepayers can make an appointment to read the specified minutes. If ratepayers do not know about this legal provision, it is more convenient for the city council to say that all meeting minutes are classified under the Official Secrets Act.
Kuala Lumpur is special
Although DBKL is gazetted and recognised as a local council under the Local Government Act, its management is defined under the Federal Capital Act 1960. Under this, the council president or mayor is replaced by a Commissioner of the City of Kuala Lumpur. Better known by the Malay title “Datuk Bandar Kuala Lumpur”, this city commissioner is appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
Instead of councillors, DBKL has an “advisory board”. Councillors have a certain degree of power to debate and vote on issues within a local council. However, DBKL’s advisory board can only “advise the commissioner upon such matters connected with the administration of the city as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong may by order prescribe, and upon any questions referred to the Advisory Board by the minister or the commissioner”.
This advisory board is next to useless because the law does not require monthly meetings to be held. This is unlike the provision in the Local Government Act, where the mayor and councillors must meet monthly at a full board meeting to go through all council matters and to approve or reject any proposed council action.
In comparison, the Federal Capital Act states that members of the advisory board may vote on issues, and that the Datuk Bandar has the tie-breaking vote. If the Datuk Bandar does not want to heed the board’s advice, Section 10 of the Federal Capital Act states: “The commissioner may, after consultation with the minister, act in opposition to the advice given to him by the Advisory Board, if in any case he shall think fit to do so…”
The law states that the minutes of a meeting where a dispute between an advisory board member and the Datuk Bandar occurs must be kept. But given the difficulty of accessing meeting minutes as explained above, there’s little an advisory board member can do in the event of a dispute.
A lot of money
Given the total lack of representation within local councils and especially in DBKL, how can ratepayers fight back or argue against the city hall’s decision to raise assessment rates? One would need access to DBKL documents to object. But you won’t be able to object because you have no access to these documents.
Tengku Adnan has said that DBKL intends to raise an additional RM400 million to help pay for infrastructure works and development. That’s a lot of money to ask for without being accountable about how the funds will be used. For example, what are these development projects and their breakdown cost? Are there leakages that, if plugged, could help save the amount that city hall says it needs? Why did DBKL even need RM2.19 billion in 2013 to function? What is its staff size?
What can ratepayers do?
One of my experiences as a councillor involved chairing assessment rate objection hearings for Petaling Jaya ratepayers. The objection hearings were tedious and involved calling in ratepayers who had written in to object to MBPJ’s valuation of their property. It also involved explaining to each ratepayer the rules and the purpose of the objection hearing.
Meeting with just 300 respondents required a full day. DBKL sent out 507,000 notices on the new rates to ratepayers, and the new valuation can only be implemented once it records all objections. This means that there are potentially 500,000 ratepayers that the city hall has to meet, should all of them object.
If all 500,000 ratepayers object, this will buy ratepayers time. Public complaints have already led to two somewhat contradictory announcements by Federal Territories Deputy Minister Loga Bala Mohan and Tengku Adnan, respectively, about the rate hike. It will either be postponed from January to March next year, pending dialogue with ratepayers. Or, even if the new assessment rates are implemented on 1 Jan, ratepayers can defer payment until the special panel established to seek public feedback makes a decision.
Both announcements are slightly misleading. The new valuation list will simply not take effect until after the objection hearing is done, as per Section 143 of the Local Government Act. So the actual date on which ratepayers are slapped with the new rates really depends on how many people object. If 500,000 ratepayers object, this would further delay the implementation of the new rates, possibly even beyond the March deadline.
It is true that DBKL can still implement the new valuation once it goes through all objections and completes its dialogue. But public outrage is better than simply allowing unelected local government officials to further tax ratepayers. Already, PR is organising a rally against the proposed hike at DBKL on 16 Dec, a day before the deadline for objections.
But much more needs to be done. There needs to be greater concerted effort to demand for more access to the city’s documents and to call for local government elections. Will the public rise up to this challenge? Or will they eventually be defeated by DBKL?
KW Mak was an MBPJ councillor from 2008 to 2012.