LOCAL government officials have come under fire over the past few weeks. First, Ipoh Datuk Bandar Datuk Sirajuddin Salleh was criticised for allowing his officials to play moral guardian and then, Ampang Jaya Municipal Council enforcement director Kapt (Rtd) Abdul Kudus Ahmad found himself having to fend off allegations of graft.
Over the years, as the size of the countrys population grew bigger, so has the role of local governments with more city, municipal and district councils created.
The positions of Datuk Bandar and municipal council president have become plum jobs. Its certainly a dream job for a civil servant when you have the powers of approving, implementing and enforcing by-laws and collecting revenue.
Thus, some officials have treated their municipalities as their fiefdom, subtly reminding the Local Government and Housing Ministry that it only has a policy-making role despite being a federal entity.
As minister Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting says, the rules are there but the problem begins at the implementation stage especially when rules are interpreted to suit the council, or the officials.
In fact, at one time, many municipal council presidents posts were held by the mentris besar or chief ministers themselves.
Unlike other government agencies, the local governments have plenty of cash as they collect revenue in various forms such as assessment rates, parking fees and summonses.
In affluent areas, we sometimes see these councils spending taxpayers money on so-called beautification projects but which actually brought the opposite.
The Subang Jaya Municipal Council, one of the richest councils, spent RM3mil to build the Millennium Square, with some steel replicas of palm trees and a pond squeezed into it -- hardly the tourist attraction the council tried to spin to justify this wastage.
But the main complaints of ordinary Malaysians are basically the failure of councils to do a decent job in keeping their residential areas clean.
They want their rubbish collected, the streets properly lit, the grass properly cut, the wet markets clean and playing fields available for our children to spend their time.
For traders and businessmen, they want the enforcement officers to be fair. Many of us must have, at one time or another, seen how high-handed these officers can be in dealing with unlicensed traders.
We must have wondered why no action was taken against restaurant owners who placed their tables on parking lots when motorists, just down the road, are fined when their meters run out of parking time.
No one can fault ordinary Malaysians if they suspect these officials of being corrupt. The saddest part is that councils are acting against these errant restaurateurs only after a fatal car accident in Petaling Jaya.
We are talking about making Malaysia a developed nation but our city officials are certainly not doing what they are supposedly paid to do.
Forget about living in well-managed cities like those in Australia and Canada. You can choose to live in Putrajaya, where 70% of the land is earmarked for parks, gardens, open spaces and lakes if we want quality of living.
For the rest of us, we have to live with our councils which are doing a lousy job in grappling with problems like flash floods, illegal building extensions, cleanliness, maintenance, traffic jams and the ubiquitous hawkers.
Even the cleanliness in affluent Desa Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur, billed as the alternate Bangsar, is fast deteriorating as its popularity grows.
You only have to stroll along the sidewalks to see rubbish strewn around, the stench and the rats in the back lanes. Parking is, of course, a serious problem and it makes us wonder how so many buildings can be approved when there is insufficient parking space.
Our council officials can expect Malaysians to check on them. With Malaysians travelling more and becoming more educated, our councillors would have to reinvent themselves to meet rising expectations.
They should be prepared to be questioned over their actions. Their legitimacy, accountability and transparency will always be the basis by which we judge their ability to manage urban problems.
There have been suggestions that councillors should be elected instead of appointed. It may be democratically attractive but it may not necessarily be workable, especially if the Federal Government is run by another political party.
Let us also not assume that opposition politicians are angels. In Kelantan and Terengganu, we have seen how the PAS-run councils have imposed outrageous rules such as segregation of the sexes in supermarket checkouts, cinemas and even Ferris-wheel rides.
According to urban planner Dr Goh Ban Lee, the Penang Island City Council, under the Socialist Front in 1963, refused to celebrate Malaysia Day because it considered the formation of Malaysia a form of neo-colonialism.
The council was subsequently suspended by the Alliance government and the state secretary took over the councils administration. The two parties also spent their time fighting each other instead of solving the peoples problems.
Its time the Federal Government take away some of the powers of the councils as well as lift the shroud of secrecy surrounding council meetings.
If parliamentary and senate meetings are open to the press, why should the councils be exempted? If some mentris besar are now opening their doors once a week to the people, why should council presidents be exempted?
If the telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of elected representatives in Selangor are put up on billboards, why cant the senior officials and councillors follow suit?
The job of running a city now no longer just require officials with urban management background but those who will not be tempted to put their hand into the kitty.
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