Local government election decision goes to court

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Social activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj

GOVERNMENT is facing a threat of legal action over its decision to postpone local government elections by a year.

The threat comes from activist Ravi Balgobin-Maharaj, who says as a voter in the Maracas/Santa Margarita electoral district, he is aggrieved by the decision taken by Cabinet and announced by Local Government and Rural Development Minister Faris Al-Rawi, last week.

Balgobin-Maharaj has given the Government until 4 pm on November 14 to return to the original period for holding the election – constitutionally due between December 2022 and March 2023 – or he will go to court for judicial review relief. He says he believes “there is the real risk that councillors, aldermen, and mayors will be unlawfully occupying their respective offices from December 3, 2022.”

Balgobin-Marahaj’s threat of legal action was sent to the Prime Minister, Attorney General and Al-Rawi in a pre-action protocol letter written by attorney Vishaal Siewsaran of Freedom Law Chambers.

In the letter, Balgobin-Maharaj said he has grown frustrated by the poor representation in his district.

“The electoral district continues to have numerous potholes, the drains are not regularly cleaned, the environment is unkempt, and when it rains there is widespread flooding and mosquitoes in the area.”

He said he was looking forward to the local government elections “to vote for a new representative in hope that better representation could be provided for the burgesses of the electoral district of Maracas/Santa Margarita.”

The letter also set out the history behind the Miscellaneous Provisions (Local Government Reform) Bill.

Balgobin-Maharaj is contending the decision of the Cabinet was unauthorised, contrary to law and an abuse of power to “retrospectively apply an amendment to the law to increase the terms of councillors which ultimately delays the local government elections.”

He also alleges, “Government’s attempt to delay the elections by retrospectively applying the amendments to the Municipal Corporations Act is a fraud committed on the electorate, in bad faith, which amounts to an improper use of the legislation.”

The letter adds, “The decision also denies the electorate of their legitimate expectation that the councillors (whom) they elected in 2019 would only be in office for a three-year term.

“Furthermore, those persons serving on the council have also been denied their legitimate expectation that they would only serve a three-year term.”

The letter said any decision to change or amend the act must be done expressly and unambiguously.

“In other words, whenever elections are to be denied or deferred it ought not to be done by implication. “The laws ought to be interpreted in a way which facilitates the holding of elections unless the contrary intention is expressly shown.

“If it were the intention of the Government, who holds a parliamentary majority, to amend the law to defer the elections, it ought to have confronted the issue squarely in the Parliament.”

The letter said it was “inherently wrong” for the Government to amend the law “under the guise of local government reform, only to attempt to apply those amendments implicitly in a piecemeal and retrospective manner to alter the terms of the council which was elected in 2019 under and by virtue of the law that existed at the material time.”

It added, “The effect of the Government’s interpretation of the law is to extend the life of the current council by one year.

“In other words, the electorate is being denied its right to vote in elections for that period by amendments which do not state on its face that it is to have retrospective effect, and which clearly ought not to be interpreted in that manner.”

It argued, “An analysis of whether the amendments have retrospective effect must be conducted subject to the constitutional significance of the right to vote.”