THE Selangor government has recently appointed councillors into the various local councils and many are first-timers.
As a former Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) councillor whose term ran from 2008 to 2012, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the councillors, both new and old.
Who am I? I was a former journalist with The Star prior to becoming a councillor.
I specialised in investigative reporting on issues related to MBPJ, one of which involved the (now defunct) MBPJ Football Club and the millions of ringgit solicited from billboard advertising companies that were used to finance the club.
As a councillor, I put to use my training as a journalist to investigate and research local government rules and laws and worked closely with numerous residents groups to oppose development projects.
I have also done a lot of research on Petaling Jaya’s founding history and have written a book entitled The Truth About Petaling Jaya Land.
This column will be mostly about the rules and laws governing local councils.
But before we jump into that, allow me to recap some of my experiences as a councillor so readers can acquaint themselves with what being a councillor was like for me.
Councillors are given an annual budget to spend on small infrastructure projects.
At MBPJ, that allocation is RM100,000.
Small-time contractors would be quick to lobby for these jobs and some will offer to reimburse you if the job is given to them.
I have heard that the “commission” can go up to 20%, but I was only offered between 5% and 7%.
Well, technically, the offer was to ‘donate’ that amount to the party or to a charity of my choice as a way to boost my image and standing among the public.
These offers would be done verbally, so it isn’t something you can easily report to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).
In any case, my method of staying above board was to introduce the contractor and the residents of the area where the infrastructure project would be carried out and tell the contractor that if the job was not carried out according to the residents’ satisfaction, I would not allow payment to be processed.
I would also insist that both the contractor and the residents exchange contact numbers so that they can resolve any dispute over the project quickly.
Do not take it for granted that your position is technically above those of the officers who work there.
Although councillors are akin to the board of directors, there is a saying among the officers that “politicians come and go, but officers are here to stay”.
For example, officers are the ones who keep all the records and they are not above leaking the council’s classified meeting minutes to bloggers or to reporters like myself.
Some of the officers that I worked with were the same ones who fed me information about the misdeeds of the previous administration.
Suffice to say, they can make your life miserable if you are not above board and choose to behave like a tyrant.
Having said that, there are also officers who will teach you how the government system works and point you to information sources that you would otherwise not know about.
Such officers are true gems, but you will have to gain their trust first.
Finally, there is the matter of meeting the public and solving the issues they bring to you.
These issues can range from a request to obtain a business licence to helping someone get approval for renovation plans.
As an example, I have accompanied an architect who could not get her client’s house renovation plans approved despite having gone to the building department three times.
Each time the architect went, she was told her plans did not meet a different requirement.
Surprisingly, when I sat down with her to go through the process once more, there were no further problems with the plans and approval was granted.
While the architect was grateful, she also did not want to file an official complaint.
You may have to deal with residents’ calls during wee hours of the morning sometimes.
Of the calls that I have received, one was at 2am about noisy construction work still happening at an upcoming development next door; another was at 3am about rubbish trucks dumping rubbish illegally in the neighbourhood.
You could also, of course, shut off your phone at night as some councillors do.
Regardless of how responsive or attentive you are however, there will be some residents who will accuse you of being corrupt and bought over.
Well, actually, I have had residents tell me they expect me to bend over backwards for them simply because I was a councillor with access to the council’s coffers and that I must be on the take.
One thing is certain: life as a councillor was never dull.
- Mak Khuin Weng has a large collection of government rules on development which he will go through with readers in the upcoming instalments of this column.
- The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.